If you have followed the Subway Super Series enough, you must have caught yourself thinking — who's the masked guy? No, we're not talking about goalies. The guy wears #15 on his back and a full-face mask on his head. That would be Valeri Nichushkin — one of the hottest Russian prospects this season.
North American fans and media would know him a little bit better if he opted to play in the CHL this year. Nichushkin, who was ranked first by KHL scouting bureau this past spring, said in May he's willing to cross the Atlantic but instead he stayed in his hometown of Chelyabinsk.
"I was going to play in Canada but then I signed a contract with Traktor," explains the 17-year-old.
Nichushkin signed a three--year contract but hasn't played a game in the KHL yet. Clearly being too good for the MHL — Russia's major junior league — he now plays for Chelmet, Traktor's VHL affiliate team. How is he too good for a junior team? He has four goals and four assists in nine games for Belye Medvedi this season. In the VHL he scored eight goals and 10 points in 15 games.
That doesn't really explain the full-face mask, though.
"You can't play in visor in Russia if you're under 18. It wouldn't make sense for me. I would have to get used to wearing visor first, and then I would have to get used to wearing full-face mask again. And I don't have a mouthguard, anyway," explains Nichushkin.
"He wants to take him off bad but he doesn't. I even offered him a visor but he refused to take it," says a fellow Chelyabinsk native Maxim Shalunov, a Chicago Blackhawks draft choice.
Shalunov plays on right wing on a line with Nichushkin. Leading MHL goal-scorer Vladimir Tkachev completes the trio playing in the middle. So far they've been arguably the best line for Russia in the Subway Super Series as they have scored three goals and somehow managed to come out with a positive plus-minus in all four games.
"We know about our stats. It's only natural to follow how well you did on a stats sheet," the 6-foot-3 176-pound Nichushkin says. "However, individual statistics doesn't really matter. We're a team — lose or win. One for all and all for one."
Likes the North American ice
Despite great individual stats in a pro league, Nichushkin is pointless in the Subway Super Series, which is even at 6-6 with Team WHL hosting Game 5 on Wednesday at Vancouver (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT, Sportsnet/TVA Sports/NHL Network USA). One thing scouts may wonder about is how well is the transition to a smaller ice going for Valeri?
"Here everything is faster. Pro players play smart, they don't run around too much. Besides, the rinks are smaller and that also speeds the game up. I like small rinks, though. I always play well on them. Hopefully, I'm going to score soon," says Nichushkin.
Last time he played in Canada, Nichushkin scored three goals and notched three assists for six points in five games at the World U17 Hockey Challenge in Windsor. Team Russia won just their second gold medal in the history of the tournament.
That team sent five players to major junior — Nikita Serebryakov (Saginaw Spirit), Nikita Zadorov (London Knights), Sergey Tolchinsky (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds), Valentin Zykov (Baie-Comeau Drakkar) and Ivan Barbashev (Moncton Wildcats).
"I hope we're going to win this series too," says Nichushkin with a smile.