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Nichushkin's Olympic selection causes rift in Team Russia's staff

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Valeri Nichushkin's inclusion on Russia's Olympic roster made waves among the team's staff. (USATSI)
Valeri Nichushkin's inclusion on Russia's Olympic roster made waves among the team's staff. (USATSI)

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When the roster for Russia's 2014 Olympic team was announced, it wasn't a surprise to see a pretty even split among players from the NHL and KHL. It was, however, rather shocking to see that 18-year-old Valeri Nichushkin had made the team.

Apparently that shock doesn't only extend to fans and critics. Head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov didn't sound too happy with the choice former NHLer and Team Russia's general manager Alexei Yashin made regarding the Dallas Stars rookie.

From R Sport:

When Nichushkin was selected as the youngest player on the Russian roster Tuesday, coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said it was “an advance payment” that the player “must justify,” but general manager Alexei Yashin dismissed that idea in comments to R-Sport on Wednesday.

“It's hard to talk about an advance payment. It's the wrong word,” said Yashin, who played 850 career NHL games. “Nichushkin has earned the call to the Olympics with his game.”

According to Yashin, Nichushkin is “a very good player and an emerging star of the NHL” and his rookie season is reminiscent of Canadian stars Sidney Crosby and John Tavares.

By “advance payment,” it seems that Bilyaletdinov means Nichushkin is getting the spot without having done enough to earn it at such a young age.

The pressure on Russia to win in Sochi has to be immense. Hockey is expected to be the crown jewel of the Sochi games as the Russians are very prideful about a sport they feel is as much theirs as anyone else's. So if the head coach and general manager aren't on the same page, that's getting off to a pretty rocky start.

Russia is in Group A with USA, Slovakia and Slovenia, so they'll have their work cut out for them right out of the gates.

Nichushkin has been good for the Stars this year with 22 points in 43 games including nine goals. That said, it's hard to say he belongs on the team over a more established player like Alexander Semin. Nichushkin has also never played in a men's national team event aside from the World Junior Championship and World Under-18 Championship last year.

The 6-foot-4, 205-pound forward did star in the KHL playoffs last year, helping get Traktor Chelyabinsk to the Gagarin Cup finals. He had nine points in 25 postseason contests as a 17-year-old playing a high level of pro hockey.

It's probably not much of a surprise that Bilyaletdinov is nervous about the choice Yashin made. After all, it will be the head coach as the most visible Russian official, opening Bilyaletdinov up for the bulk of the scrutiny.

Russia has not medaled at the Olympics since taking bronze in 2002. Their embarrassing loss to Canada in 2010 still stings and as the host of the games, they'll want to give the nation something to cheer about. Yashin is certainly taking a risk here with Nichushkin and he better smooth things over with his coach soon, too.

Gotta love Olympic hockey drama.

(h/t ProHockeyTalk)

 
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