He averages fewer than 14 minutes a night. He has just one point in his past six games. He's on pace to fall just short of his previous best offensive total of 34 points. But strangely enough, Valeri Nichushkin's season can be called a success.
No, Nichushkin hasn't lived up to the hype that made him a first-round pick by Dallas in 2013 (10th overall), but the Russian winger has found a way to breathe new life into his career. When you factor in Nichushkin's historically poor season in 2018-19, a 57-game run without a single goal (coincidentally, today is the four-year anniversary of his last goal before 2019-20), the Avalanche – a fast team on the upswing – bringing him in this past summer seemed odd. But as colleague Jared Clinton projected when Nichushkin signed, it was a gamble that has paid off for all parties involved.
With 12 goals and 26 points in 60 games – and two nights removed from his 100th career point – Nichushkin, a tough 6-foot-4 winger, has made an impact in Colorado's bottom six and is often regarded by Avalanche fans as one of the hardest-working players on the team. He needed 19 games to score his first goal of 2019-20, marking just his third point of the season. But with a handful of multi-game point streaks and even a three-point effort against Buffalo last month, Nichushkin quickly found his confidence again, something he never had in his return to Dallas last season. Now, it's working out for Nichushkin in Denver.
At 5-on-5, Nichushkin's 54.7 Corsi-for rating and 53.6 Fenwick are the best on the Avalanche. Among all NHLers, Nichushkin's 14.9 goals above replacement is 22nd, so while he hasn’t been a big-time scorer, his complete impact on the ice is much better than you’d get out of most bottom-six forwards. Per Money Puck, Nichushkin's 0.79 goals-per-60 at 5-on-5 is good to tie Tyson Jost for first on the Avalanche and Nichushkin's 11 goals at even strength is good for fourth on the team, trailing just Nathan MacKinnon, Andre Burakovsky and Nazem Kadri – one's an MVP candidate and the other two are top-six forwards when healthy, so that's noteworthy. Nichushkin
Of course, we're talking about a top 10 NHL pick, so the expectations were high. Twenty-six players selected in 2013 have hit that mark already, including 17 players in the first round. Nichushkin's rookie season was promising with 34 points in 79 games, but injuries limited his action to his 13 games between the NHL and AHL as a sophomore and he was off to the KHL two years later. When Nichushkin returned last season, nothing went right and the Stars decided to cut their losses with one of the highest draft picks in franchise history – just like the three of the team's four first-round picks before Nichushkin in Scott Glennie, Jack Campbell and Jamie Oleksiak.
But using Byron Bader's NHLe tool, that's not surprising, either. Nichushkin's projected point total in his draft year (using this NHLe formula) suggested he would translate into a 25-point forward, bumping up to 35 a year after the draft (for reference, 2020 projected No. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere's draft-year NHLe is currently at 45). Nichushkin's biggest asset was his size, but inconsistency was an issue during his draft year, too. His skill didn't translate well to the NHL, but he's competent enough to play a bottom-six role when the team has confidence in him to do so – just like Jared Bednar does now.
When GM Joe Sakic signed Nichushkin last summer, the Avalanche were getting a player that was determined to prove he still had some life in his NHL career, and it has worked out like the Avalanche were hoping for. After two months of play, Nichushkin was 19th in ice time among players with at least 10 games played on the Avalanche with 13:36. Since Feb. 1, it's been bumped up a minute – not a huge jump, but higher than his career average of 13:48 and a big step from his 11:55 last season. Injuries in Colorado's lineup helped play into that, but Nichushkin has earned it, too. Nichushkin's 12 goals on his $850,000 deal is good for 29th among cost-per-goals in the NHL, so he's been cost-efficient, to say the least.
A low-risk signing in the dead of summer has benefited the Avalanche on the ice and has served as a way of keeping Nichushkin's career alive. With Nichushkin set to become an RFA this summer, it seems like a no-brainer that the Avalanche would retain him at a fair price. If Nichushkin can score 15 goals each year while providing size to Colorado's third line, that's more than enough value at this point in his career after a weak start. But one thing is certain: Nichushkin's career was seeking a lifeline, and the Avalanche sent out a life preserver just in time.
(Advanced statistics, unless otherwise noted, via NaturalStatTrick)
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