The Colorado Avalanche entered the offseason needing to add depth to their offense. Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen formed arguably the most potent line in the NHL. The Avalanche struggled, however, to complement that talent with scoring from the second, third, and fourth lines. They made a few moves, some quieter than others, last summer to address this deficiency. Now, over halfway through the season, those acquisitions have paid off nicely, reinforcing the Avalanche’s offense and propelling them to the upper end of the Central Division and Western Conference.
The Avalanche signed Valeri Nichushkin to a one-year contract before the 2019-20 season. This move has been one of the most underrated moves in the NHL. By all measures, Nichushkin has resurrected his NHL career, showing flashes of the player that secured him a draft position of 10th overall in the 2013 NHL Draft by the Dallas Stars.
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At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Nichushkin’s size, speed, and skill have the potential to propel him to an NHL superstar. But, of course, the transition to the NHL is not always smooth. After a strong rookie season of 34 points in 79 games, he notched only 40 points in the next three seasons. The Stars bought out his contract last summer before the Avalanche signed him to bolster their offense. He has produced offensively and taken the pressure off Colorado’s top three.
He broke a 91-game goalless drought against the Toronto Maple Leafs and has not slowed down since. He has 12 goals and 13 assists in 57 games, and at 0.44 points per game, he is on pace to approach his combined point total over the previous three seasons. He also has 31 takeaways and 14 giveaways, a positive difference demonstrating his puck strength. Combined with his plus-28 rating, Nichushkin has proven he can score and contribute on the defensive side of the puck. His presence in the Avalanche’s lineup has done more than add the offensive depth for which Colorado was searching.
Any fan of the San Jose Sharks could tell you the value – both tangible and intangible – the Avalanche added when they inked Joonas Donskoi to a four-year deal on July 1. In four seasons with the Sharks, Donskoi contributed with scoring and a tireless work ethic, traits that general manager Joe Sakic thought would bolster Colorado. His first season with the Avalanche has proved Sakic correct, as his 15 goals this season are a new career-high. With 31 points in 56 games, he is on pace to eclipse his highest point total of 37.
But it is not only Donskoi’s offensive production that has been valuable to Colorado. He has seen his average time on ice increase by about two minutes with the Avalanche, proving his increased worth and responsibility within the team. His consistency allows him to play up and down the lineup, as he can handle first-line minutes if needed or serve a secondary role to take the eyes off MacKinnon. These abilities more than fulfill the Avalanche’s need for forward depth. His career-high goal total and point pace exceed expectations, but it should not be surprising. Donskoi’s potential and production had been latent, and Colorado’s system has let that skill shine.
At 34 years old, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s success for the Avalanche has been, perhaps, the most surprising. His career-high 20 points (8 goals, 12 assists) are a welcome addition to Colorado’s offense, but the other facets of his game make the Avalanche an even deadlier threat. His 40 blocked shots are second on the team for forwards behind only J.T. Compher (50), and he averages over two minutes of shorthanded time on ice per game.
Every team needs players who fill roles. But, in many aspects, Bellemare has demonstrated he is more than a role player. He has established himself as a driving force for Colorado, playing a 200-foot game that adds an important layer to his team’s offense and defense.
Similar to Nichushkin, Andre Burakovsky is a big body (6-foot-3, 201 pounds) who can skate and score. In fact, he was drafted 13 spots behind Nichushkin in the 2013 NHL Draft by the Washington Capitals. During his five seasons there, he showed flashes of the skill that made him a high selection, but he never eclipsed 20 goals or 40 points. This season he has surpassed both with 20 goals and 25 assists in 57 games.
Burakovsky’s ability to create offense himself has been an impressive facet of his game. He is not simply benefiting from playing with skilled teammates. Rather, he is a skilled player that elevates his linemates. While Colorado knew Burakovsky had skill and potential, his seemingly quick development into a complete player has created a winger that can play in any situation
The Avalanche’s newest forward addition Vladislav Namestnikov has the potential to follow a similar path to these forwards. A first-round selection in 2011, he has yet to post the numbers expected for such a high draft pick. Spending time with the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, and Ottawa Senators, he has only surpassed 40 points once. Colorado could be the destination that unleashes his offensive production. Given the success of the Avalanche’s newest additions, it would not be surprising. With playoffs looming closer, Namestnikov has the opportunity to further reinforce Colorado’s already potent and deep offense.
Overall, Colorado’s offseason moves have not only addressed their shortcomings but also established the Avalanche as one of the most well-rounded, persistent, and lethal offenses in the NHL. Considering the injuries to Rantanen and Landeskog throughout the season, these acquisitions have proved even more important. With a healthy and deep lineup, Colorado’s goal has shifted from simply making the playoffs to winning.