When the Colorado Avalanche signed Val Nichuskin to a one year contract at the end of August, most expected him to be nothing more than training camp filler that was destined for the AHL Eagles. After all, he hadn’t scored a goal in the NHL since March 4th, 2016.
The Avalanche were a team with a number of new faces and a glut of bottom-6 capable forwards, so the Nichushkin signing was puzzling to most fans. But Joe Sakic was willing to take a chance on the former 10th overall pick and gave him the opportunity to show he can make an impact in the NHL. The 24-year old has taken full advantage of that chance.
It took a while for the big winger to get going. He had no goals and only two assists through his first 18 games with the Avalanche while finding his way to the press box on a few occasions. Then on November 23rd - 1,358 days since he last scored an NHL - Nichushkin got his first goal of the season and has been on fire ever since. In his last eight games, Nichushkin has five goals, including the first shorthanded goal of his career.
It was only a matter of time before Nichushkin caught fire. Despite not finding the score sheet, his underlying numbers have been very impressive through out the season. On a per 60 basis, Nichushkin has been generating expected goals at a rate higher than fellow newcomers Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovesky, and Joonas Donskoi. He just needed to get some puck luck - and now he’s found it.
While it’s great that he’s adding goals recently, offense is not the reason Nichushkin has been so valuable to this Avalanche team. Aside from a few games this season when injuries were at their worst, Nichushkin has been asked to play a defensive role - and he’s excelled at it.
Of the Avalanche forwards who have played more than 10 games this season, only Pierre-Edouard Bellemare has a better shot suppression rate than Nichushkin. That is made even more impressive when you consider that the two of them have been starting approximately 60% of their shifts in the defensive zone.
His most common two linemates this season have been Bellemare and Matt Calvert. As a trio, this third line has been absolutely dominating when on the ice. They lead the team in expected goal differential and aside from Nathan MacKinnon, no one else is even close.
He’s not one of the biggest reasons the Avalanche are winning games, but Val Nichushkin has been playing a big role in the success the team is having. Bouncing around the lineup due to the high volume of injuries, he’s done well to stay focused and fill whatever role is asked of him.
Even if he falls off a cliff over the remaining games this season, Nichushkin has already provided the value of his $850,000 contract. A restricted free agent this summer, he will need a new deal with the team before next season. Given how this season has resurrected his NHL career, it’s easy to see a willingness from both sides to get an easy extension done with a modest raise.
Now that the Avalanche forward group is getting healthy, coach Bednar should be able to allow Nichushkin to settle into the third line role with more regular linemate - something that will likely make him even more dependable in the second half of the season. What started off as a questionable signing from Sakic has turned into a perfect example of why fans should have full faith in the way the General Manager is constructing the team.
He’ll never be one of the top guys on the team, but what Nichushkin is doing for the Avalanche right now is immensely valuable. He’s the type of player a good team needs if they plan to make a deep run in the playoffs.