Make no mistake, Valeri Nichushkin is unlikely to become the most productive offseason acquisition for the Colorado Avalanche but he’s certainly trending towards the best return on investment. In a season where Joe Sakic is getting GM of the Year consideration, in part for the impactful moves made over the last summer, it is becoming fair to wonder if betting on Nichushkin was his smartest gamble.
Value comes into play considering the asset and monetary investments in which Andre Burakovsky cost significant draft capital; Nazem Kadri was acquired for Tyson Barrie; and Alexander Kerfoot and Joonas Donskoi required a four-year contract commitment; and even Pierre-Edouard Bellemare inked a multi-year deal, but none of them have been the bargain that Nichushkin has been.
Discarded after the Dallas Stars bought out the final year of a two-year, $5.9M contract, many figured Nichushkin would eventually head back home to Russia, and that was even after the Avalanche signed him to a one-year, $850,000 contract. Reminiscent of all the other failed former first-round pick, last-chance experiments such as Nail Yakupov and Marko Dano, there wasn’t much hope this would turn out any different — and perhaps the Avalanche just figured he was just another shot at a reclamation project. Nichushkin played well in preseason, earning himself a spot on the Avs’ opening night roster and he has not looked back since.
It took until November 23rd for Nichushkin to score a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs seen above, which he hadn’t done in 92 NHL games dating back to the 2015-16 season before a two-year sojourn to the KHL. Since then Nichushkin has lit the lamp seven more times, including in some key situations such as this beauty seen below to open the scoring in a 4-0 win over the San Jose Sharks. Nichushkin also owns the most recent Gordie Howe Hat Trick for the Avalanche.
Getting some production out of Nichushkin — 17 points in 44 games thus far — was key to resurrecting his NHL career, but what he’s done beyond the scoresheet has been even more valuable. According to data from Natural Stat Trick, currently Nichushkin is second on the team to Matt Calvert in Corsi For with 53.6%, leads in Expected Goals For with 57.2% and has the best on-ice goal differential on the team with 28 for and only 11 against, which is also reflected in his top-three placement among all NHL forwards in plus/minus with a plus-19. All the while starting only 40% of his shifts in the offensive zone.
Nichushkin has done good work on the penalty kill as well, averaging 51 seconds per game on either the second or third unit. His returns there have been strong with the lowest penalty kill Corsi Against/60 with 83.87 and Expected Goals Against/60 with 3.17 among the regular penalty killers for the Avalanche. In fact, Nichushkin has only been on the ice for two goals against on the penalty kill, and for a unit which has struggled, the coaching staff could work to use him more in this type of role.
When Gabe Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen were out with injury, Nichushkin naturally saw his time on ice increase. But lately, with a near healthy lineup, he’s seen time on the second line on Kadri’s wing. Nichushkin will likely still see his usage and time on ice continue to fluctuate but he’s worked himself into a reliable role where he provides good defense, forecheck pressure and a point every 2.57 games worth of offense while watching his confidence grow.
This summer Nichushkin will be a restricted free agent again but it looks like he’s found himself a home in Colorado. Another one-year deal could make the most sense as Nichushkin will have to keep up his contributions over an extended period of time to receive a longer term commitment. The Avalanche also have to sort out their depth options with others needing new contracts, such as Tyson Jost, and where to fit in graduating prospects, if any. In the meantime, Nichushkin will continue to be the best offseason bargain added to the Avalanche lineup.