During the summer of 2019, the Colorado Avalanche signed ex-Dallas Stars’ forward Valeri Nichushkin to a one-year $850,000 contract. The former 10th overall pick looked to be on his way back to the KHL following his unsuccessful time in Dallas, but instead landed in Colorado.
Following a successful first season in Colorado, Nichushkin will become a restricted free agent, and he’s given general manager Joe Sakic a decision to make.
Sky-High Expectations Out of Russia
Nichushkin began his career playing for hometown club Chelyabinsk Traktor in Russia. As a 17-year-old, he contributed four goals and two assists in 18 games. Despite not dominating the KHL, he showed glimpses of brilliance. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Nichushkin excelled in puck possession. Besides, he had elite skating abilities with great acceleration and top-end speed. The Russian displayed his skillset beautifully with the game-winning goal in overtime against Canada in the 2013 IIHF World Juniors bronze medal game.
Following the World Juniors, NHL scouts were all over the Russian winger. Due to his high potential, some compared him to Alexander Ovechkin. With this momentum, Nichushkin entered the 2013 NHL draft as a possible top-five pick. However, questions regarding his work rate and commitment to come overseas once drafted dropped him to 10th overall.
First NHL Stint
Following the draft, Nichushkin joined the Dallas Stars from the get-go. As an 18-year-old, he played 79 games for the club, providing 14 goals and 20 assists. His solid rookie campaign led to high expectations heading into his second season. However, things went awry quickly for him in Dallas. The Russian forward began the season with injury woes, playing only four of the Stars’ first 19 games due to hip and groin ailments. Finally, in November 2014, he opted for hip surgery, which sidelined him for the majority of the season.
Yet, his struggles continued throughout his third season in Dallas. Despite being healthy, the Russian winger lost confidence, contributing only nine goals and 20 assists in 79 games. He ended the regular season and playoffs without scoring a goal in 26 straight games. With opportunities and playing time quickly fading in Dallas, Nichushkin left the Stars for his homeland to find his confidence again.
Second NHL Stint
The right-winger found success in the KHL playing for CSKA Moscow. In his two seasons for the club, he found the back of the net 27 times in 86 games. He led his team with seven game-winning goals in his second season. His confidence was back, Nichushkin was ready for a return to the NHL.
The Stars re-signed the winger on a two-year contract worth $5.9 million. Many believed Nichushkin was ready to contribute consistently for Dallas, but the 23-year-old had his worst campaign yet. In 57 games, he failed to record a single goal. His playing time dipped to 11:55 per game – a career-low. The writing was on the wall for Nichushkin as he was bought out by the Stars the ensuing summer.
Rejuvenated in Denver
It appeared that success at the NHL level was near impossible for Nichushkin. Following two disastrous spells in Dallas, a return to the KHL was imminent. Yet, before doing so, Sakic offered a change of scenery for the Russian forward with a one-year prove-it deal in Colorado. It turned out to be the perfect opportunity for him. For the first time in his career, he entered training camp with no pressure on his shoulders.
He began the season at the bottom of the lineup for the Avalanche. Throughout the first 18 games, he averaged 12:25 of ice time with two assists to his name. However, on Nov. 23, 2019, everything changed when the Russian scored for the first time in 91 consecutive NHL games.
It was the confidence booster he needed.
For the remaining 46 games of the season, Nichushkin contributed 12 goals and 12 assists, including three game-winners. The winger found a perfect role between Colorado’s second and third line. His consistent play on both ends of the ice led to more playing opportunities. By the last quarter of the season, Nichushkin averaged 15:47 per game.
The 25-year-old finished the season leading the Avalanche in both Corsi at 55.6 and Fenwick at 55.3 at even strength. Besides, he ranked tied for eighth in the NHL with a plus-26 rating. His successful campaign did not go unnoticed throughout the league, as he earned an eighth-place finish for the Selke Trophy. Overall, Nichushkin found a perfect role with the Avalanche and for the first time in his NHL career, he was happy.
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“All my family is happy. That was the biggest point. Last year, the family, everyone (knew I struggled). I look at my mom and dad and they look not that happy because they worry about me and they know I’m nervous. The year wasn’t good last year. I’m so happy now that I can see more smiles.”Valeri Nichushkin (from ‘Discarded and doubted, Valeri Nichushkin resurrects NHL career with Avalanche,’ Denver Post, 01/05/2020)
What’s Next for Nichushkin and the Avs?
Entering the 2020 offseason with seven expired contracts, Sakic and the front office have some decisions to make. As outlined before, Nichushkin is not priority No. 1 but he remains an important piece. It appears the Russian winger found his role as a top two-way forward under Bednar. Consequently, he should receive more power-play time and perhaps score a couple more goals.
His versatility will be key moving forward for the Avalanche. Therefore, they should re-sign him to a three-year deal in the range of $2.5 million. Nichushkin may not be the 40-goal scorer many had hoped for, instead, he is a puck-possession specialist who could win a Selke down the road.