Avalanche’s Gamble on Nichushkin Is Paying Dividends

In nine games this season, Colorado Avalanche right winger Valeri Nichushkin has five goals, four assists, and a plus/minus of plus-9. It’s the most productive nine-game stretch of Nichushkin’s career since he had 10 points and a plus-11 in December 2013, his rookie season. And it is by far the best start to a season Nichushkin has had since joining the NHL.

It’s a remarkable turn around for the former No. 10 overall pick, who was all but written off after a string of disappointing seasons for the Dallas Stars. When general manager Joe Sakic and the Avalanche signed Nichushkin to a one -year contract in 2019, he had failed to score a single goal in 73 consecutive regular season games (plus 11 postseason games) for the Stars, spanning two and a half years.

Colorado Avalanche Executive Vice President Joe Sakic
Colorado Avalanche Executive Vice President Joe Sakic (Photo by RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Sakic’s gamble, that his staff would be able to squeeze production out of the six foot four inch, 210 pound forward, production the Dallas staff had failed to elicit, is paying dividends. Nichushkin is a fixture on the Avalanche’s number two line with Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky, and a mainstay on Colorado’s penalty killing unit. He has one shorthanded goal in each of his three seasons with the Avalanche, including one this year.

Nichushkin Top Prospect Before Entering the League

Nichushkin came into the league with a lot promise. During the run-up to the 2013 draft, The Hockey Writers identified Nichushkin as physical, forechecking presence with speed and finesse, and were he not from Russia, he would have been near the top of most mock drafts, along with Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones, and Aleksander Barkov, all of whom turned out to be stars in the league.

“He’s a guy with all kinds of talent,” Al Murray, the director of amateur scouting for the Tampa Bay Lightning said at the time. “He’s big, he’s a tremendous skater, but in February at the Under-18 tournament, that was maybe the most dominant performance I’ve seen at any of those Under-18 or World Junior tournaments.”

When Nichushkin fell to number 10 in the draft, the Stars pulled the trigger. His contract with Dynamo Moscow, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) club in Russia that owned his rights, allowed him to play in the NHL, but only the NHL. If Nichushkin played for any other league, including the AHL, he could be recalled by his Russian team. With that, the Stars had no choice but to start the eighteen-year-old with the big league club.

The forward tallied 34 points (14 goals, 20 assists) and was a plus-20 in 79 games in 2013-14, his rookie season. It was a very solid effort for a player making his first appearance in North American hockey, and something to build on. It included two power play goals, and two game winning goals. And then, Nichushkin’s career came off the rails.

Career Turns South for Nichushkin

First, it was injury. Just four games into his sophomore season, the Chelyabinsk, Russia native landed on the long-term injured reserve list with hip surgery. It was an injury that had nagged him through training camp and the start of the season. Nichushkin didn’t return until April, when he played in an additional four games. He would play a total of only eight games that season, scoring only one point, a lone assist.

Valeri Nichushkin
(Valeri Nichushkin. Photo: DalStars9 WikiMedia)

Healthy for the start of the 2015-16 season, Nichushkin was slow out of the starting gate. He had only two points — both assists — in his firs 12 games. He finished the campaign with 29 points (9 goals, 20 assists) and a plus/minus of only +2 in 79 games. It was a reasonable effort, but a regression from his rookie year, and disappointing for a highly touted first round draft pick.

Nichushkin elected to return to the KHL in Russia, playing for CSKA Moscow for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. While there, he scored 27 goals and 24 assists in 86 games. Dallas protected NHL rights for Nichushkin, even protecting him from the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 expansion draft. They re-signed their former first round pick to a two-year, $5.9M deal for the start of the 2018-19 campaign.

The season was a disaster. Playing in 57 games, Nichushkin had zero goals, zero penalty minutes, only 10 assists, and a plus/minus of -4. He saw his ice time decline from 14:58 per game in his rookie year, to just 11:55.

Enter Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche.

Rebirth With the Avalanche

The Avalanche were able to sign Nichushkin to a one-year deal for only $850k. Given how far he had fallen in the 2018-19 season with the Stars, it was a risky signing, even at the low price tag. But Sakic was bullish:

“Valeri is a big, young winger who adds depth to our roster and brings competition to our training camp,” Sakic said at the time. “He brings NHL experience to our team and we are excited to have him with our organization.”

Nichushkin had 27 points (13 goals, including three game winning goals, and 14 assists) and an astounding plus-26 in 65 games during his first season with the Avalanche. It was good enough for Sakic to re-sign Nichushkin to a two-year deal worth $5M. The right winger had another solid effort in the Covid shortened 2020-21 season, scoring 21 points (10 goals, including four game winners, and 11 assists) and was a plus-9 in 55 games.

Colorado Avalanche Valeri Nichushkin Nashville Predators Rocco Grimaldi
Colorado Avalanche Valeri Nichushkin tries to keep the puck from Nashville Predators center Rocco Grimaldi (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Nichushkin was nominated by the Colorado chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association as the player to represent the Avalanche for the 2020-21 season’s Bill Masterton Trophy. The award is given annually to the player that best exemplifies qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey. (Oskar Lindblom of the Philadelphia Flyers was awarded the trophy.)

Related: Flyers’ Lindblom Earns Masterton Trophy After Battle With Cancer

This season Nichushkin is scoring nearly a point a game, more than double his typical production, and his ice time has swelled as a result. The power forward is averaging 17:27 per game so far this year. Given his pedigree, watch for continued growth from Nichushkin in the months and years to come, and expect him to be an impact player as Colorado attempts to compete for a Stanley Cup.

He and his Avalanche teammates are next on the ice this Wednesday against the Maple Leafs in Toronto.