When the Colorado Avalanche first signed Valeri Nichushkin back in 2019, no one imagined just how well things would go. At the time, he just got bought out by the Dallas Stars after failing to score a single goal across 57 games in 2018-19. Fast forward to today, and Nichushkin has his name on the Stanley Cup and still plays a prominent role in the Avs top-six. Nichushkin’s story in the NHL remains full of ups and downs, but the Avs remain very invested in the one-of-a-kind power forward.
Valeri Nichushkin Success Story Continues with the Colorado Avalanche
The Avs have won seven of their last eight games, and currently occupy first in the Central Division with 30 points (15-6-0). During that stretch, plenty of Avs stepped up, but none more than Nichushkin. He still rides a eight-game point streak, which features a six-game goal streak and a whopping 12 points (eight of which were goals). When he plays his best, the Avs possess one of the best power forwards in the league. But, things weren’t always this way for the winger.
Nichushkin’s story began back in 2013, when the Stars selected him in the first round (tenth overall) of the NHL entry draft. He performed well in his rookie season, potting 14 goals and 34 points in 79 games. His next season saw him bounce a bit between the NHL and AHL, and ultimately he only dressed for eight contests and scored no goals for Dallas.
His third season in the league appeared to put Nichushkin back on track from where he left things off in his first season. He accumulated 29 points in 79 games. That summer, he wound up signing for CSKA Moskova back in his home country of Russia. The decision took him out of the NHL for two seasons, and at the time many thought the change to be a permanent one.
Return to the NHL, and Departure from Dallas
In his two years in the KHL, Nichushkin’s story got back on the up-and-up. He scored at a much higher rate than he did in the NHL, and learned to better utilize his large frame as a 6’4, 210 pound winger. The signs for optimism brought the Stars back into his world, and he inked a two-year contract to come back to the NHL for his former team.
That return did not quite go as planned, however. Nichushkin posted the lowest time-on-ice averages of his career that season, and failed to score a single goal. In 57 contests, he managed just 10 points (all assists), and the Stars bought out the second and final year of the deal they just penned one summer earlier.
Enter Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche. Sakic took a flier on Nichushkin, offering him a one-year, $850,000 contract for the 2019-20 season.
Nichushkin’s Story Moves to Denver
Immediately, Nichushkin fit in nicely with the Avs. Surely it helped playing with a star-studded cast of players around him, too. But Nichushkin brought a lot to the table himself, adding grit and weight that Colorado lacked in their depth. He finished tenth on the team in scoring, posting 27 points and looking rejuvenated in a new city.
That first year proved that Nichushkin’s story belonged at the NHL level. He earned a two-year extension in Colorado, and repeated his success in 2020-21 with 21 points in 55 games. He brought stability to the team’s middle six, and contributed double-digit goal totals regularly as an Av.
Nichushkin’s Breakout and Stanley Cup Championship
His third year in Colorado really took things to a whole other level, though. He became a mainstay on the team’s second line with Nazem Kadri as his centre. Nichushkin skated over 19 minutes per game that year, after ever only playing 14 per game in any year prior. And his production warranted that bump, as he exploded for 25 goals and 52 points in just 62 contests.
That was just the beginning, too. In the postseason, Nichushkin found yet another gear and scored nine goals and 15 points in 20 games. His ice time notched up again, exceeding 20 minutes per night en route to the Avs’ Stanley Cup Championship. His performance earned him a massive eight-year extension, worth $6.125 million per season.
Last year, he continued that play and scored 47 points. Injuries limited him to just 53 games, but when in the lineup his presence was always felt. Nichushkin brings a dramatic forecheck in his game, with an unwavering willingness to hound pucks and disrupt their opponent’s flow.
Sudden End to 2022-23 Season
Once they reached the playoffs, Nichushkin played just two contests in their first round matchup. Off-ice issues took him out of the lineup, and his absence contributed to the team losing the series in seven games. Not much came to light from that hotel incident in Seattle, though the league noted that the Avalanche organization handled things appropriately.
Nichushkin’s Hot Start in 2023-24
Nichushkin returned in time to attend the full 2023-24 training camp, and left no doubt that he was ready to be back. As this season got under way, Nichushkin immediately reclaimed his top six lineup position, and contributed as if he missed no time at all. Currently, he only trails superstars Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen in points thus far in the season.
Now 21 games into the year, Nichushkin’s story continues trending upwards. He already collected ten goals and ten assists, good for 20 points and a near point-per-game scoring pace. His possession metrics remain strong, too. His presence became doubly important when Artturi Lehkonen fell victim to injury. Without the pesky winger, Nichushkin picked up the slack admirably.
So in just a few short years, Nichushkin went from a reclamation project, seemingly destined for some level of hockey outside of the NHL, to one of the best forwards on one of the best teams in the league. He won the Stanley Cup, and nearly the Conn Smythe too along the way, after failing to record a single goal just a few years earlier. And despite some recent drama, he’s back to playing his best and setting a positive example for the whole Avalanche roster. This is one bet the Avs hit on, with flying colours.
Main Photo: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports