NHL Draft prospects: No. 5 Valeri Nichushkin

Projected Top 10 NHL Draft Pick Valeri Nichushkin has committed to playing in North America. (AP/Yuri Kuzmin)

Sportsnet.ca is previewing the top 30 prospects in the 30 days leading up to the National Hockey League draft in New Jersey on June 30.

The top five in our countdown begins with the big, skilled Russian forward Valeri Nichushkin.

Stats: Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL) | 18 GP | 4 G | 2 A | 6 P | +6 | 0 PIM

Who is Valeri Nichushkin?

Nichushkin’s been on the radar for two seasons as his country’s top prospect for this draft. He had six points in five games for Russia’s gold-medal winning 2012 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge roster. He split this past season between the KHL team and the second-division, as well as junior leagues in Russia, though without posting big numbers.

In January, he scored the overtime-winning goal for the host Russians at the world juniors over Canada in the bronze-medal game. Nichushkin played very well at the Under-18 Five-Nations tournament in February, and excelled at the under-18 world championship in April.

Valeri Nichushkin’s scouting report:

Nichushkin has all the skill to be a big-time goal scorer, but the stigma surrounding him is the same placed on many skilled Russians before him: inconsistent with wavering desire. He showed glimpses of his immense potential as a dominant, go-to scorer, such as his winner over Canada at the world juniors, but is guilty of fading into the background far too often. He has excellent size at six-foot-three and 200 pounds, and uses it well from time-to-time. His skating and offensive abilities are dynamic.

In addition to inconsistencies, Nichushkin could also stand to use his linemates more and share the puck. Nevertheless, his high-end talent will be appealing near the top of the draft.

Teams who might be interested in Valeri Nichushkin:

Nichushkin is a real wildcard for the draft. Unlike fellow countryman Nikita Zadorov, Nichushkin elected to stay home in his draft year, which is always a concern for NHL teams trying to gauge his interest in playing in North America. The Russian factor, which would most likely include a hefty release fee from his KHL contract, will surely drop him on some draft boards. As a result, he may even slide out of the top 10 and into the laps of a team such as the Winnipeg Jets, Columbus Blue Jackets or New York Islanders.

Scout’s take: “Nichushkin is a game-breaker,” describes David Burstyn, director of scouting for McKeen’s Hockey. “He has all the skills to basically break open a game and when he wants to, he can. I think we saw that in the bronze-medal game at the world juniors where his only goal was a game-winning goal to help Russia capture a bronze.

“He’s an elite skater in every sense of the word: Balance, power, speed, acceleration, and edge-work. Nichushkin is one of those players that, when he’s on the ice, he can dominate a game. At times, he gets a little bit ahead of himself and he tries to do too much, overlooking passing options. He’s got a great signature move where he comes down from his wing and he drives the net and he’s such a beast of a player that he can do that with a fair bit of accuracy and success. I think his KHL contract will have a lot to do with his draft stock and a team that’s looking to draft him is going to have to do their homework to make sure they can bring him over.”

“A tremendous puck possession player, he has been one of my top players for this draft for a few years now,” adds Ross MacLean, head scout for International Scouting Services. “He fell off the radar a bit over the first portion of the season because of limited ice time in the KHL and no real North American exposure but exploded back onto the scene with a solid world junior performance, followed by some very strong numbers and overall play in the KHL.

“He had a subpar performance in the U18s and did not show well at the combine, just adding to the mystery,” MacLean continues. “He has a tremendous package of size and skill and has elite offensive abilities. His work ethic has come into question and he has left a lot in the hockey world with a feeling that he is a bit entitled. He could be a major steal or a major problem for a team.”

Rankings: Nichushkin was ranked second by the NHL’s Central Scouting (European skaters), fourth by International Scouting Services and sixth by McKeen’s Hockey.