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From Castaway to Hero, Valeri Nichushkin Has Reinvented Himself

Three seasons removed from a buyout, Valeri Nichushkin has transformed himself from a struggling depth forward to one of Colorado's most important scoring forces during the Stanley Cup final

Kids: go watch Valeri Nichushkin's opening shift of Game 2. Study that. Learn from it. Do that every game, and you'll be in the NHL in no time.

From forcing a turnover after a good Tampa start, only to come inches from scoring to draw penalty, Nichushkin was on a mission to cause pure havoc.

And then, on the ensuing power play, he was rewarded for it with the game's opening goal. 1-0, Colorado back in control like the start of Game 1. Dejavu, really.

And then he did it again, scoring the 4-0 goal early in the second period in an eventual 7-0 win.

On a team full of superstars -- Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon, namely -- Nichushkin has emerged as one of Colorado's most important players night in and night out, and is a big reason why the Avs hold a 2-0 series lead heading to Tampa Bay. In 16 games, Nichushkin is up to eight goals and 13 points, and likely would have even more had the Avs not rolled over Nashville, St. Louis and Edmonton.

That's in addition to his best career regular season run, too. In 62 contests, Nichushkin scored 25 goals for the first time in his career and finished with a whopping 52 points -- six points shy of the 58 he recorded over the three seasons prior.

What makes Nichushkin's season so incredible is because of how far down he was in hockey's hierarchy. Drafted 10th overall in 2013 by Dallas, he failed to become a regular offensive contributor with the Stars, but nobody expected the horrific on-ice drought he'd go through. 

In his return to the NHL after two years back home in the KHL, Nichushkin took 65 shots in 57 games and didn't score on any one of them. None. Zero. He's a forward. He played all throughout the lineup, and was even given time with the team's best players in a chance of sparking the offense scouts always believed he could create.

Instead, the once-prominent prospect needed 91 games -- 1,359 days -- to finally net a goal, doing so against Toronto during the 2019-20 season after nearly two full months with the Avalanche. The Stars bought him out of the final two years of his deal that should have saw him become a regular contributor for a Stars team in need of secondary scoring, but the marriage was fractured nearly the minute it was re-ignited during that terrible season.

Coach Jared Bednar was patient with Nichushkin, letting him make mistakes and get comfortable. Bednar taught Nichushkin to be a better defensive forward, and in his first season with the Avs, he finished with 13 goals, 27 points and eighth in Selke Trophy voting. The following year, he had 21 points in the COVID-19-shortened campaign, acting as a good secondary scoring the Stars were salivating for at one point. 

And now, we're here. And he's better than ever.

"He's a huge X factor," Bednar said about Nichushkin's play after Game 1. "He's had an incredible season so far. He's been a difference-maker almost every night for us. His ability to check, and check pucks back to keep us playing offense, you saw it on display (in Game 1)."

It takes a lot to be paired with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog on the team's top line, and they deserve a lot of credit for Nichushkin's revival. Before Nazem Kadri's injury, Nichushkin also showed great chemistry with Kadri and Mikko Rantanen for Colorado's electric second line. Colorado's depth has been an incredible strength of theirs this season, and Joe Sakic's bet on Nichushkin has truly paid off.

Nichsuhkin has played with quality players when it matters this season, but he has finally shown why he deserves these opportunities in the first place. He has a grinder's mentality, fighting for every puck like his career depended on it. And that's how he drew the penalty that led to his power-play goal -- he's built like a fighter out there.

"He's such a good all-around player, with or without the puck, that it's hard to describe what he brings," Bednar said. "It's hard to play against when you're committed the way Val is. 

The timing of this run is interesting for Colorado, to say the least. The 27-year-old is a pending UFA, and the Avs have a host of talent to deal with this summer -- including Kadri and goaltender Darcy Kuemper. If the Avs win the Cup, maybe Nichushkin tests the open market and gets paid like most expected he would. 

That's a later-day Joe Sakic problem. Right now, his patience -- and Nichushkin's determination to prove everyone wrong -- is paying off.


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