We all expect to be talking about Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar after a win as major as the opener of the Stanley Cup Final. But today, there’s rightfully a ton of focus on Valeri Nichushkin.
The winger’s had an interesting path to this point, but his career-year has extended to the playoffs. And Game 1 put on display what a difference-maker he can be, even on a team filled with star power. He’s secondary to the elite talent, but a key part of what makes this team so stacked in talent.
It could have been easy to write off Nichushkin earlier in his NHL tenure. He was drafted with the 10th overall pick back in 2013 by the Dallas Stars, and never quite lived up to the reputation that’s attached to such a high pick. Dallas bought out the second and final year of a two-year contract that carried a $2.95 million cap hit.
At the time, Nichushkin wasn’t the difference-maker they likely hoped he would become. But he was an effective, defensively sound player, which is still valuable in this league. So that makes him a prime example of what can go wrong if a team gives up on a player too soon, even if they don’t have the scoring totals that were initially hoped for.
Colorado has clearly benefited from that decision, as they signed him to a one-year contract that same off-season for just $850,000. Nichushkin responded by scoring at the best rate of his career with 1.77 points per 60, but that scoring only scratches the surface of his contributions. The Avalanche extended him for two years, with a cap hit $2.5 million. Now, that contract’s expiring, which times pretty perfectly for the winger who is having the best year of his NHL career.
Nichushkin’s 2020-21 season was the prime example of how effective a player can be even if they aren’t a prolific scorer. There’s an appropriate slot in the lineup for a player of that calibre, just likely closer to the middle-six versus top-six. But this year, when that forward nets 25 goals and 52 points, all scored at a career-high rate, he rightfully earned a promotion as he moved towards the top of the lineup. And that’s paying dividends this postseason as well.
What makes Nichushkin so effective?
The winger can be trusted in every single situation, on both ends of the ice. Not only that, but he isn’t simply a defensive forward who is too one-dimensional to actually push the pace of play, either. That’s particularly important in today’s game that emphasizes speed and skill. Having actual puck skills, even without an elite scoring touch, is essential in this league. As much as someone can play defence and be trusted to stop opponents from generating quality chances, that only considers one end of the ice. It helps to have a player who can apply some pressure, even if it’s simply cycling the puck and winding down the clock.
That certainly can be said for Nichushkin, who helped his team generate 58 per cent of the shot share at five-on-five in the regular season. While he’s on the ice, Colorado doesn’t just stick to the outside and waste time until more skilled players hop over the boards, either. In the regular season, the Avalanche created 3.47 expected goals-for while he was deployed, which was towards the top of the league. And they gave up fewer quality looks than they took.
Nichushkin is tenacious on the puck, and will use his stick — especially in the offensive and neutral zone — to break up attempts to skate out of the zone with possession. That helps the Avalanche regain possession and either extend their zone time, or drive back up over the blue line. That translates to the penalty kill as well, where he disrupts opposing power plays in formation.
Take this play from Game 1, where he manages to check the puck off Victor Hedman’s stick and move it to his teammates to start generating shots.
Or earlier this postseason against the Blues, when the winger showed the little plays he can make to gain possession.
Here’s another example of the work Nichushkin puts in to help his team reset and reload for another offensive opportunity. The result is a scoring chance off the rebound from Nichushkin.
That clip brings us to another key skill of his — retrieving loose pucks. That’s something he showed a propensity for in the regular season, and hasn’t let up in the playoffs. In fact, he’s stood out in particular in the postseason with the eighth-highest rate of puck retrievals in the offensive zone. It was from him finding a loose puck off a rebound like the clip above versus St. Louis, or from battling under pressure.
The growth in his game is that he’s not just making the plays to facilitate for his teammates. He still is doing exactly that, which is why he’s such a great fit alongside a player like MacKinnon. But now he’s also coming up with dangerous chances off those efforts.
And best of all, he has the results to match.
All of that came together in Game 1 against the Lightning. At even strength, he retrieved eight loose pucks, brought the puck over the blue line with control five times, and had three slot shots.
One of those slot shots ended up past Andrei Vasilevskiy.
And one of those puck recoveries had a direct impact as well; Nichushkin got possession and set up Andre Burakovsky for the game-winner to take a 1-0 series win over the Lightning.
The winger’s stellar season put him in contention for a trophy in the regular season, when he put himself in the Selke race. And his game hasn’t changed even though the pressure has in the postseason; he’s been one of the most valuable players throughout the playoffs. Now, Nichushkin’s making a direct impact on his team’s chances to win an even more important trophy.
Data via Sportlogiq