For the first time in my tenure as a hockey fan, the Dallas Stars have a very tough decision to make about if they want to allow a stud teenager to take some time off from the NHL season to represent his country in the World Junior Hockey Championships. Conventional wisdom says that most teams want their kids playing in such an intense and prestigious tournament, but sometimes there are exceptions to the rule.
There are pros and cons to sending Big Val over to Sweden to play in the World Juniors. The upside is that it allows him to take a starring role in a tournament against his peers, and with what he's done in international tournaments in the past, it's almost certain to be a huge confidence booster for the kid. He's simply a man against boys when he suits up against other teenagers. It's also considered good for his development to play in "big games" as a young guy. Yes, the NHL is a big deal, but the importance and intensity of a World Juniors tournament isn't even comparable to regular season NHL games for a team fighting for Wild Card relevance. If the Stars want to cultivate and test his ability to step up in big games when he's needed, they'd want to see him lead the Russians to a medal, and make it look easy.
That said, there are plenty of reasons the Stars wouldn't want him to go. The simplest reason is that the Stars are battling an injury bug right now, and really need him to continue to play in the Top 6 for the NHL side. Since adding him to the Seguin/Benn duo, that line has really put together some dominant games. He may not be lighting up the score sheet as much as his linemates, but he's an integral part to the Stars game right now. Simply put, losing him would make us a worse team until he comes back, and the Stars don't really have the luxury of burning points for the development of a rookie. You've also got to factor in that Valeri is still adjusting to the North American style of game, the State of Texas, and the English language. Some could argue that sending him to play for the Russians on an international sheet of ice, where he will likely not speak a word of English until he comes back, would only hurt the progress he's made to this point.
Situations like this are always pretty tricky, and I imagine the Stars might approach it slightly differently if his name was Val Nichman from Guelph, instead of Valeri Nichushkin from Chelyabinsk. Perhaps his closest comparable right now is Sasha Barkov. The bluechip center for the Florida Panthers would be a lock for the top line of Finland if they allowed him to leave the club to represent his country... but they're not going to. Panthers GM Dale Tallon said yesterday that Barkov is too important to the Panthers to lose him for even a short tournament. "There's no way he's going anywhere but here," he told the Miami Herald. "We have to let him grow. He's a big part of our future and our present."
If I were in Jim Nill's shoes, I'd have to ask Valeri what his hopes are. If he wants to go, I'd have to consider it. While Valeri has shown himself to be anything but the selfish prima donna that he was portrayed as before the draft, it's still probably a wise decision to keep him happy as much as possible, just for the sake of future negotiations with him. He's going to be one of the All-Time great Dallas Stars, as far as I'm concerned, so it just depends on how important this tournament is to him. At the end of the day, it'll just be a blip on the radar of his entry level contract, let alone his career.
Many young Russian stars are fiercely patriotic and relish the chance to play for their country at any tournament, but Nichushkin has shown a real dedication to his new life as a Texan, American resident, and Dallas Star, so it's difficult to read from a fan's perspective. It will be interesting to see what the Stars say in the coming weeks about his availability for the Russian side, and if the Stars deem him too integral to the current roster to spare.
Either way, it's a special and rare occasion that any team has to make this decision. If you're playing a key role on an NHL roster and you're still young enough to play in the World Juniors Tournament, you're obviously doing something right.