Intro: The Tampa Bay Lightning hold the third overall pick in Sunday's NHL entry draft that will take place at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. beginning at 3 p.m. This week The Tribune looks at the top five ranked players on the draft board, one of which will likely end up as part of the Lightning organization.
Today: F Valeri Nichushkin
Tuesday: C Alexsander Barkov
Wednesday: F Jonathan Drouin
Thursday: F Nathan MacKinnon
Friday: D Seth Jones
TAMPA - Big, Russian power forward Valeri Nichushkin played as a boy amongst men most of the season entering his draft year. But it doesn't mean he played out of his element.
The 6-foot-4, 202-pound winger has the prototypical frame of a power forward and plays that style of game. He uses his size to get to the main scoring areas and utilizes his skating ability and finesse to make the most of it when he is in the right position.
A star at this year's World Under-18 championships, Nichushkin had four goals and seven points in six games. A fixture on the Russian national team, he also helped the Under-20 team capture a bronze medal at the World Junior Championships in January.
Up next: the NHL entry draft on Sunday, where Nichushkin is regarded as a top-five pick and a possible target for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have the No. 3 overall pick.
"Huge with all kinds of talent,'' Lightning director of scouting Al Murray of Nichushkin. "He's big. He's a tremendous skater. He's got all kinds of individual one-on-one skills with the puck. And that was maybe the problem with him, is that maybe you didn't think he could see the other options with other players, as well."
Then, Nichushkin played in the Under-18 tournament in February.
"(He had) maybe the most dominant performance that I have seen in a tournament, or as good a one at any of those Under-18 or World Junior tournaments," Murray said. "He absolutely took over the tournament. He was a combination of (Alex) Ovechkin and (Evgeni) Malkin. He was in on the puck. He was making plays. He was scoring goals, setting up goals in the third period when his team was behind. And he never quit on a shift. He was just spectacular.
"He was good at the World Junior, but in February he just took his game up to another level.''
Nichushkin, 18, faced older and stronger competition playing for Chelyabinsk in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League, where he was a teammate of defenseman and Lightning draft pick Nikita Nestorov. Nichushkin had four goals in 18 regular season games before scoring six times and adding nine points in 25 playoff games.
"When you see that potential and you see what he was able to do in the Russian men's league - he was a regular player on one of the best teams in the Russian men's league - I think you see a pretty good prospect,'' Murray said.
The question will be Nichushkin's commitment to playing in the NHL. Though his Kontinental League contract reportedly was voided and he is training in North America this summer, doubts will linger despite his public comments he wants to play in the NHL next season.
But there is no questioning his talent. In just about any other draft, the talented Russian might be in line go first overall. Instead, he is ranked as the fourth best forward in a deep draft.
"Nichushkin is the absolute beast of the bunch, having grown to gargantuan proportions (6-4, 202 pounds) while retaining the fluidity and elusiveness in his stride, and his trademark vision and playmaking abilities,'' Kyle Woodlief, founder of the Red Line Report scouting service said in his report for USA Today. "His hands are both strong and soft, and he's able to control the puck like he has it on a string. It's almost unfair how easy it is for him to just walk down even strong defensemen and take the puck straight to the net at will.''