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Russian wing Nichushkin presents Lightning draft dilemma

Russian wing Valeri Nichushkin, at April’s under-18 world semifinals vs. the United States, is rated the draft’s No. 2 player.
Russian wing Valeri Nichushkin, at April’s under-18 world semifinals vs. the United States, is rated the draft’s No. 2 player.
Published May 12, 2013

There has been much discussion about whom the Lightning will take with the third overall selection in the June 30 draft, with the bulk of speculation falling to forwards Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon.

But Tampa Bay will not know who is at the top of its draft list until it speaks to Valeri Nichushkin at the prospects combine that begins May 27 in Toronto and determines his intentions.

All things being equal, Nichushkin, 18, is exactly what the Lightning needs, a supremely talented right wing who at 6 feet 3, 196 pounds still has room to grow, is a terrific skater and who one day might complement center Steven Stamkos.

The problem is all things are not equal.

Nichushkin, a Russian ranked by the International Scouting Service as the No. 2 player in the draft, has a two-year contract to play in the European Kontinental Hockey League and this month was traded from Chelyabinsk to Dynamo Moscow for a reported $10 million.

What the Lightning needs to know: Does Nichushkin want to play in the NHL?

That is all that matters because Nichushkin is so talented with so much upside, Tampa Bay might be willing to wait for him to play out his KHL deal.

"Huge, with all kinds of talent," said Lightning head scout Al Murray, who critiqued his top draftable players in alphabetical order so as not to reveal the team's intentions. "He's big. He's a tremendous skater. He's got individual one-on-one skills with the puck."

About Nichushkin's performance at February's 5 Nations under-18 tournament, Murray said, "That's maybe the most dominant performance I've ever seen at a tournament. He absolutely took over. He was a combination of (Alex) Ovechkin and (Evgeni) Malkin. He was in on the forecheck. He was finishing checks. He was making plays. He scored big goals. He never quit on a shift, and he was just spectacular."

But there is that contract. Is Nichushkin willing to use the buyout clause Lightning assistant general manager Julien BriseBois said is in every KHL contract? With no transfer agreement between the NHL and the Russian hockey federation — and with both sides agreeing to respect each other's in-place contracts — Nichushkin buying out of the deal might be the only way he comes to North America before 2015.

It's also safe to assume Dynamo Moscow, after paying $10 million for his services, is expecting him to stick around.

And that brings us back to the meeting at the combine between Nichushkin and the Lightning, because if Nichushkin wants to eventually play in the NHL, the team has a decision to make.

Does it plan for the future and draft Nichushkin, or does general manager Steve Yzerman look for more immediate impact by taking, say, Drouin, with Halifax of the junior Quebec league, whom Murray said "might be as good a playmaker as there is in the draft"?

Yzerman has shown he is not afraid to draft Russian players not immediately available to come to North America, such as goalie Andrey Vasilevskiy and defenseman Nikita Nesterov.

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But with Murray saying the other top players in the draft — defenseman Seth Jones, expected to go No. 1 to the Avalanche; Drouin, MacKinnon and center Aleksander Barkov — might be ready to play in the NHL, is Nichushkin worth the wait?

That is worth talking about.