On a team loaded with offensive superstars, Valeri Nichushkin’s numbers don’t exactly jump off the page. The Colorado Avalanche forward is known more for his defense and reputation as a devastating forechecker, and that elite defense has made him one of the most versatile players on the Avalanche roster.
Now his offensive numbers are picking up, too. Nichushkin’s career-year might not look like Nazem Kadri’s impressive campaign that landed Kadri in the All-Star Game, and he might not score 30 goals like Mikko Rantanen, but just one goal away from his first 20-goal season, he’s made himself a proven commodity when he has the puck.
Nichushkin’s Career Year
Entering this season, Nichushkin had only one season with more than 30 points to his credit, and it was his rookie season. Granted, he likely would have hit that number in each of the last two seasons if they had not been cut short by COVID-19, considering he had 27 points in 65 games in 2019-20, and 21 points in just 55 games last year. He’s blown those numbers out of the water this season.
Nichushkin has 19 goals and 22 assists – both career highs – in 53 games this season, and it has come through remarkable consistency. His longest stretch without a point this season is just four games, and he ended that stretch with three goals and an assist over the subsequent two games. He has scored multiple goals in four games this season, a feat he had accomplished only twice in his first six NHL campaigns.
He also had five goals in December, despite missing some time with an upper-body injury. The scoring has helped Colorado’s already impressive scoring depth, and his 19 goals are seventh on the team. Nichushkin also turned his stellar defensive play into offense. He leads the club with two short-handed goals, impressive considering he had just two career short-handed goals entering this season.
Long Road to Become an Offensive Threat
After a promising rookie campaign that produced 14 goals and 34 points, Nichushkin disappeared. He scored just nine goals in his next 87 games, and the Dallas Stars didn’t renew his contract. On Sept. 20, 2016, he signed with CSKA Moscow, and played in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for a couple of seasons. After scoring 27 goals across those two seasons, the Stars took another chance on him with a one-year deal in 2018-19. He played 57 games that season, and managed just 10 points – all assists. The Stars then bought out the remainder of his contract after the season.
Enter Joe Sakic. The Avalanche general manager took a flyer on the Russian forward, and Nichushkin’s offensive output has built as steadily as his confidence. In 2019-20, his first season with the Avs, he had 13 goals and 27 points, and his plus-26 was second on the team in plus/minus to defenseman Ryan Graves, who led the NHL that season at plus-40.
From his last goal with the Stars back in 2016, to his first goal with the Avs in 2019, Nichushkin played a staggering 91 NHL games without a goal. The league record for consecutive games without a goal is held by former New Jersey Devils stalwart Ken Daneyko, who went 255 games without lighting the lamp between 1999 and 2002. To put Nichushkin’s struggles in perspective, Daneyko went 1,354 days between goals during his record-setting stretch. Adding in Nichushkin’s two seasons spent in the KHL, the Avalanche forward went 1,357 days between NHL goals.
Will Nichushkin Be Back Next Year?
The steadily increasing offensive output may be a double-edged sword in Nichushkin’s case. He is arguably one of the top defensive forwards in the league. His forechecking stacks up against anyone in the NHL, and his elite defense makes him a valuable commodity. Adding in his increased potential on offense, and the 27-year-old forward might become too pricey for Colorado.
Nichushkin has also proven he can play anywhere in the lineup. Not only has he been a stalwart in the middle-six for the Avalanche the couple of seasons, but coach Jared Bednar hasn’t been shy about using him on the top line, either. He’s played most of his minutes with Kadri and Andre Burakovsky, but Nichushkin has also logged more than 130 minutes across 20 games in the top line with Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon.
Nichushkin is one of Colorado’s three big free agents on the offensive side, along with Kadri and Burakovsky. Nobody would blame the Avalanche for keeping all of them, but that’s probably unrealistic based on affordability. Nichushkin likely has a number of playing years left, and has proven himself this season to get a raise, but so have Burakovsky and Kadri, and that’s not counting the expiring contract for goaltender Darcy Kuemper.
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In line for their second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy, the Avalanche are obviously more focused on the postseason than the offseason, and how the Avs fare in the playoffs will play a large roll in who Sakic decides to keep around. Having quality free agents like Nichushkin is a good problem to have, but don’t be surprised if he’s in a different uniform next season. Either way, he will likely be a massive contributor down the stretch and in the playoffs for Colorado.