After a massive breakout campaign in which he emerged as a critical figure for the Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche, winger Valeri Nichushkin was rewarded with an eight-year, $49 million contract extension. It was a tidy sum for a player whose counting stats have never popped off the page (his 52 points last season represented the first time in his career that he cracked the 50-point mark) but his impact transcends the typical boxscore stats.
Even with heightened expectations heading into the 2022-23 season, the 27-year-old power forward has exceeded what many anticipated he would do for an encore. Let’s dive into Nichushkin’s prolific start to the campaign, and how he’s become a crucial piece of the Avalanche’s gameplan.
Nichushkin Hitting New Heights on Offense
If there were doubts that he could replicate his near point-per-game pace once again this season, Nichushkin has done everything in his power to dispel those notions in the early going. Through the first four games of the season, he ranks third or better on the team in several important offensive categories. In fact, he’s even entrenched himself within the NHL’s elite in some cases and given the Avalanche’s chance at repeating as Stanley Cup champions a shot in the arm.
|Stat||Nichushkin||Team Rank||NHL Rank|
Driving much of his hot start is his absurd efficiency on the power play, where he’s tied with Steven Stamkos for the league lead with four goals, and tied for second in points with several others. Part of his scoring explosion can be explained by increased usage with the man advantage, where he’s playing almost 1:30 minutes more per game compared to last season.
It may not seem like much, but it translates to around an additional 100 power-play minutes in 2022-23. That could make the difference between setting a new career high in points or appearing somewhat stagnant, even if the underlying numbers say otherwise. It also doesn’t hurt to be surrounded by a number of the sport’s most skilled players including Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar, but he’s making the most of his opportunity nonetheless.
Although Nichushkin has done most of his damage away from even-strength situations, that shouldn’t take away from his impressive performance to start the season. All of the NHL’s biggest stars feast with the man advantage, and teams would rather their players convert than not. To them, there is little differentiating when it comes to the game’s final result.
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Of course, it should be noted that Nichushkin is firing at an unsustainable clip by scoring on 33 percent of his shots (SH%), a byproduct of the season’s small sample size. Despite the outlandish conversion numbers, he is generating an above-average rate of shots and owns a career SH% of just over 10 percent. Even if he reverts back to his career norms for the rest of the season, he should still finish with over 30 goals (beating his previous career-high of 25) assuming he maintains his current shot rate of 3.75 per game. For the Avalanche, that would represent a strong return in the first season of their multi-year commitment to the burly Russian.
Nichushkin’s Defensive Numbers Lagging Behind 2021-22
Given that Nichushkin’s scoring has jumped off the page, one could reasonably assume his attention to detail on defence has slipped as a result. According to his underlying numbers, that’s not too far from the truth. In Nichushkin’s 56 5v5 minutes, the Avalanche have taken 59 percent of shots, but own a sub-50 percent share of expected goals (xGF%), scoring chances (SCF%), and high-danger chances (HDCF%), with all three marks dipping below the 48 percent threshold.
|Statistic (%)||21-22||22-23||Difference (%)|
|Expected Goals For||56.3||46.2||-10.1|
|Scoring Chances For||59.8||46.7||-13.1|
|High-Danger Chances For||54.6||46.2||-8.4|
Even though the possession numbers are far from Nichushkin’s best, his previous results mean he deserves the benefit of the doubt. His history of disruptive forechecking and physical dominance should keep the critics at bay, but a large negative impact on the defensive end can outweigh his positives going forward.
Landeskog Injury Increases Nichushkin’s Importance
Despite not yet featuring for the Avalanche this season, Gabriel Landeskog’s impact both on and off the ice cannot be understated. He’s a vocal leader who also happens to lead by example, often one of the team’s most physically-involved skaters at both ends. With the news that he will miss three months while recovering from surgery, the Avalanche’s remaining forwards must pick up the slack. Luckily for them, their attacking contingent is firing on all cylinders and has the Avalanche scoring 4.25 goals per game, the fourth-highest rate in the NHL so far.
Landeskog averaged over a point per game last season and was one of the Avalanche’s most utilized forwards (third among forwards in average ice time), meaning there will be a sizeable absence in all situations. If Nichushkin can continue to convert his chances and provide significant value on defence, that goes a long way in keeping the Avalanche afloat until their team captain returns. With nearly $50 million committed to Nichushkin for almost the next decade, they have little choice but to rely on the player in whom they’ve made a sizeable investment. If the first two weeks are any indication of what’s to come, they are in capable hands.
Data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and the NHL. Statistics are accurate as of October 21st, 2022.