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Valeri Nichushkin’s potential NHL return complicates Stars’ expansion draft situation

Dallas would need to protect the 22-year-old winger in order to keep him from Vegas. But what if he hasn’t agreed to leave the KHL by June 18?

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Every team in the NHL has tough decisions to make for the upcoming expansion draft. Each one can only protect so many players from the Vegas Golden Knights, and everyone else will be available to the league’s 31st franchise.

For the Dallas Stars, this brings up a relatively unique situation. They are currently waiting to see whether 22-year-old forward Valeri Nichushkin wants to leave the KHL to return to Dallas next season.

"He's in Russia now and it's 50-50 on whether we get him back next season," Stars director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell told during the 2017 draft combine on Friday. "In the end it'll be up to him if he wants to come back."

But if the Stars want to retain rights to Nichushkin, who was their first-round pick in 2013, then the team will need to use one of its limited protection spots on the forward. That likely frees up a talented player Dallas would otherwise prefer to keep. It also begs the question of what the team should do if Nichushkin hasn’t made a choice by June 18, when protection lists must be submitted to the NHL.

This is the kind of interesting wrinkle to the offseason that the expansion draft creates. The Stars have said they want Nichushkin back, but keeping him would likely cost them a good player. And there are ways this could become an even trickier situation for GM Jim Nill to handle in the next few weeks.

Let’s break down how this impacts the Stars, and how it could end up benefiting the Golden Knights in the end.

The Stars’ expansion draft situation

Under the expansion draft rules, each team can protect up to seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender from Vegas. In the case of the Stars, here’s how that would likely play out right now, without Nichushkin protected.

  • Forwards: Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Cody Eakin, Antoine Roussel, Brett Ritchie, Radek Faksa
  • Defensemen: John Klingberg, Dan Hamhuis, Esa Lindell
  • Goalie: Ben Bishop

Some of these guys — Benn, Spezza, and Bishop — are automatically included on the list due to no-movement clauses. Anyone with two or fewer seasons of AHL/NHL experience is exempt from the draft, so young players such as Devin Shore, Mattias Janmark, Julius Honka, and Denis Gurianov are safe.

Under this scenario, some available players to Vegas include Stephen Johns, Curtis McKenzie, Gemel Smith, Kari Lehtonen, Antti Niemi, and ... Nichushkin.

Therein lies the problem for Dallas if it wants him back.

The Stars need to know from Nichushkin by June 18

This creates a deadline of sorts for the Stars to know what’s up with Nichushkin. They need to know his plans by June 18 to make an informed decision on who to protect. Otherwise, they’d potentially be cornered into protecting him to retain his rights even if he’s in no-man’s land.

It would be an acceptable outcome to lose a player like Eakin or Roussel if the Stars get Nichushkin as the replacement. But to protect Nichushkin and lose one of those players, only to discover weeks later that the former is staying in the KHL, would be a blow to a team that’s trying to win now while Benn and Seguin are elite players.

So the Stars will need to push Nichushkin’s camp for an answer in the next two weeks. They currently have roughly $56 million tied up in 16 players for next season, per Cap Friendly. There’s room for Dallas to give him a compelling contract offer to convince him to leave Russia.

But if he won’t agree to a new deal by June 18, it may make sense for Dallas to leave him unprotected in order to keep the 11 players listed above from Vegas.

Vegas should benefit here no matter what

The result of this situation should be good news for the Golden Knights. The Stars are going to need to leave some good players unprotected, and GM George McPhee will have options.

The ideal one for the Golden Knights would see Nichushkin available. He’s a 22-year-old former first-round pick who still has star potential. He recorded 34 points in an NHL season when he was 18. While things soured from there before he left for the KHL, the talent and pedigree remain impressive.

If he’s not thrilled about the idea of going back to Dallas, even with new head coach Ken Hitchcock sure to mix things up, what if Nichushkin could have the chance to play with countryman Vadim Shipachyov, the Golden Knights’ first big signing? Dallas will be a better team than Vegas, but the latter could offer a different kind of opportunity.

If the Stars cannot sign him and don’t protect him, that shouldn’t preclude Vegas from taking him on.

The Golden Knights would have to take that gamble because the upside is too hard to ignore. Most of the guys available in the expansion draft will have limited upside. Nichushkin would be an exception to that rule, someone who could potentially step into a bigger role with the Golden Knights from Day 1. It’s not like cap space would be an issue for a team that has maximum flexibility right now.

And even if the Golden Knights couldn’t sign him, they’d retain his rights until age 27. Sure, this team will need all the help it can get right now, but McPhee has said they’re taking a patient, more long-term approach to building a team. Nichushkin would fit into that, whether it’s this year or a couple years down the line.

There’s also the possibility of a Nichushkin trade, either to the Golden Knights or another team, if Dallas was hoping to recoup value without screwing with its protection list. There have been lots of trade rumors lately, but little movement thus far.

The alternative isn’t bad, either. If the Stars decide to protect Nichushkin — which they should do if he’ll sign — then they’ll have to leave someone else unprotected. Would that be an affordable, useful veteran like Eakin or Roussel, or a solid young player like Ritchie?

Eakin would be the easiest player for Dallas to let go given his $3.85 million cap hit through 2020. The Golden Knights probably wouldn’t mind getting a 26-year-old center who can kill penalties, win faceoffs, and give you 35-40 points per season, though, even if it’s not as sweet as getting Nichushkin.

These are the kinds of situations that the expansion draft is creating for teams right now. The Stars would usually just have to focus on their cap situation when figuring out what’s up with Nichushkin since they hold his rights. Instead, it’s going to be a much more interesting decision.