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Why signing Nichushkin is a gamble well worth taking for the Avalanche

He flopped spectacularly in his first season back in the NHL after two campaigns in the KHL, but Valeri Nichushkin has upside and a new, cheap contract with the Colorado Avalanche that is low-risk with potential for high reward.

Following a two-year stay in the KHL, Valeri Nichushkin’s return to the NHL didn’t come anywhere close to meeting expectations. Matter of fact, it couldn’t have gone much worse.

In 57 games with the Dallas Stars, Nichushkin mustered 10 points. All 10 of those points were assists, too, as not once did Nichushkin manage to find twine. With that, he entered into rare company among forwards in NHL history as one of the few to manage upwards of 60 shots in a single season and not score at least one goal, a dubious distinction that would have stung that much more if it weren’t for Tobias Rieder outdoing Nichushkin by going goalless on 92 shots with the Edmonton Oilers last season. As if that wasn’t bad enough, though, Nichushkin saw his two-year, $5.9-million pact bought out for pennies on the dollar less than one year after he had put pen to paper to cement his return North America.

But the 24-year-old is getting another chance. After spending the first eight weeks of the off-season looking for work, Nichushkin inked a one-year, $850,000 contract with the Colorado Avalanche on Monday. And you know what? It’s actually kind of a clever move by Avalanche GM Joe Sakic.

Entering the off-season, there were a couple of major to-dos on Sakic’s checklist. The first, which hasn’t yet been addressed though is expected to be resolved before the season begins, is the re-signing of top restricted free agent Mikko Rantanen. But the second, and one that was supremely important to vault this team from wild-card to top-of-the-Central Division contender, was adding depth to the attack. With the additions of Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and, most importantly, Nazem Kadri, Sakic has addressed that need. He’s turned a run of the mill attack that was almost inarguably far too reliant on its lethal trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog into an offense that is far more well rounded. There’s always room for more, though. That’s where Nichushkin fits in.

There’s no question he failed to live up to his billing as a potential member of the top six last season and no question that he’s fighting to keep the first-round bust label at bay, but Nichushkin is still young and possesses enough upside to make him a worthwhile acquisition. And though the optics of the zero-goal season are ugly, if he would have shot close to the 8.4 percent rate he managed across his first three seasons in the NHL, Nichushkin would have potted six goals last season. That’s not going to blow anyone’s hair back and it’s far fewer than most would expect out of an intriguing offensive talent who was selected 10th overall in 2013, but it’s also about in line with what you’d expect from a bottom-liner averaging roughly a dozen minutes per game.

If that is where Nichushkin is projected to fit in with the Avalanche, too, he can prove to be an upgrade over what Colorado ran with on its fourth line last season. Among those who were given time as bottom-six wingers were Sven Andrighetto, Gabriel Bourque, Andrew Agozzino, Marko Dano, Logan O’Connor, Dominic Toninato and A.J. Greer. While O’Connor and Greer have some promise as still-developing prospects, it’s no stretch to say Nichushkin represents a certain upgrade over the rest of the bunch and has more versatility, not only as a player who embraced any minutes he could get his hands on last season in Dallas, but as one who we shouldn’t yet write off as incapable of skating up the lineup.

The best part about the deal, however, is that it’s an absolutely low-risk signing that has potential for high reward. If Nichushkin comes to camp, earns a bottom-six job and then works his way up the lineup into consistent middle-six work and returns to his former 30-point form, then the Avalanche have made a cost-effective addition. He’s going to be motivated to make it work, too, which is evident enough by his clear desire to remain in the NHL given there were likely overseas suitors who would have been more than willing to bring him aboard. But if things do go sideways, there’s nothing stopping Colorado from cutting bait. At little more than league minimum, Nichushkin’s contract is such that tossing him on waivers and burying him in the minors is of next to no concern.

So, sure, Nichushkin’s success is no guarantee, but if the gamble pays off, a team that has already become far deeper this summer has added one more piece, and it’s all the more reason to be bullish about the Avalanche with the campaign on the horizon.

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