To get an idea of how challenging it can be to make the adjustment to the life of an NHL rookie at 18 years old, consider this story from Steven Stamkos. He shared it last spring in explaining why it was difficult transitioning from a junior hockey star -- where every detail of his life was handled for him -- to a professional hockey player in Tampa.
"I get to play hockey in Florida ... things couldn't get much better, right?" Stamkos said. "I come here and it was tough."
He was living in a hotel. He had no car. No credit card. He needed a new cell phone.
One afternoon, he took a taxi cab from his hotel to a Best Buy and when the cab left, he realized he had no idea where he was. He knows now it was Dale Mabry Highway, but it was 100 degrees out, and he was walking up and down a strange road trying to buy a laptop and a cell phone.
"I had no clue how far I had to walk," he said, laughing. "I look back now and it's like, 'What was I doing?'... I didn't know anyone. I didn't know my surroundings. I was 18 years old. I can't even have a beer here [at that age]. I needed an American cell phone, just trying to get my life figured out. Even that was another kind of culture shock."
Now, imagine if Stamkos were in Russia. In a place where he didn't speak the language. A place where he couldn't read a sign, where the request to be dropped off at a Best Buy might be met with a blank stare.
Stamkos is about as well-adjusted a superstar as there is in the game. He's got talent, a willingness to learn and train to get better. But even he struggled in making the NHL transition on and off the ice.
This is just a long way of saying it's going to be just as challenging, if not more so, for Valeri Nichushkin, the Dallas Stars' No. 10 overall pick in June's draft. If Stamkos struggled with culture shock going from Sarnia to Tampa, it's fair to give Nichushkin time to make the adjustment from Chelyabinsk to Dallas.
It's part of the reason the Stars are being very careful with expectations right now, even when every shift Nichushkin takes on the ice screams he's ready to make an impact right now. Today.
"I want to be very cautious," Stars GM Jim Nill said Tuesday afternoon. "It's only the exhibition season."
It is only the exhibition season, but the games in which Nichushkin have played are starting to add up, and there has been no drop-off in his performance. Nill counted, and Nichushkin has played 11 games in 14 days.
In the annual prospect tournament in Traverse City, Mich., Nichushkin was the best player. Without question. One Western Conference general manager watched him play, and then remarked, "He's a man-child." His skill, reach and physical play among the top prospects jumped off the ice. He didn't just win puck battles along the boards, he flattened the opposition to get to the puck.
And when he had the puck coming down the wing, defenders had to make a decision. If you stand him up and play his shot, he makes a move around you with that long reach. If you don't, his shot will beat you.
"I don't know how you stop him," said a Western Conference scout at the tournament.
During an intermission of one of his games, I sat down with new Stars coach Lindy Ruff to get his first impressions of the dynamic Russian.
"You can see the skill level. What you look at is, you look at the package. How well he skates, how well he handles the puck, whether he can handle the physical stuff," Ruff said. "He's a strong kid -- all those questions get answered in a positive fashion."
Comparisons are a tricky proposition for an 18-year-old kid, and when Ruff watched Nichushkin, his overall game didn't immediately remind him of any particular player.
His skating did.
"When he gets bent over and goes, he reminds me of [Evgeni] Malkin," Ruff said.
After the Avalanche made it clear they were taking Nathan MacKinnon with the No. 1 overall pick, the Stars thought Nichushkin could go anywhere from No. 2 to their pick at No. 10. It's safe to assume that every team in that range at least considered picking him. That he slipped as far as he did can only be attributed to his passport. The threat of the KHL, combined with the amount of talent otherwise available, meant team after team passed.
Before the draft, the Stars sat down with Nichushkin to weigh the KHL risk. His message to Nill and Dallas was simple: If you draft me, I'm coming over right away.
"We took him at his word," Nill said.
Every day, that's looking like a better decision and of all the players in his draft class, he's emerging as the one who can make the biggest impact this season. Physically, he looks ready and his skill level matches up with anyone. He played against men last year in the KHL, helping the adjustment.
"He had nine shots on goal," Nill said, then laughed. "He came into main camp and hasn't missed a beat. He's probably got better."
The Stars, working with Nichushkin's agent, Mark Gandler, are doing everything they can to ease the transition off the ice, because that's where this can all get tripped up. A family in Dallas the Stars know well offered up a spare bedroom in their house to help with the transition.
Nichushkin met with the family for five minutes and quickly concluded that he'd love to stay with them. It provides a comfort level for Nichushkin and a chance to improve his English.
"They know no Russian. He knows no English," Nill said.
He's meeting with a tutor two or three times a week to improve his English, and there's a minor hockey coach in Dallas who is from Russia who has helped with translating and the adjustment.
Sergei Gonchar, who was a great mentor for Malkin in Pittsburgh, has helped too, although Nill said he's cautious to heap too much of responsibility on the shoulders of his veteran defenseman.
Steps are being taken to ensure that there isn't an afternoon where Nichushkin is standing in 100 degree heat next to some Dallas highway with a laptop under his arm wondering how in the world he's going to get home.
There's going to be a drop-off. There's going to be struggles on and off the ice that every teenager goes through. But right now, it looks like the risk the Stars took at No. 10 is coming with a big payoff. And soon.