Avalanche try to forge ahead without Nichushkin

Jeff Marek is joined by Elliotte Friedman to discuss how the Colorado Avalanche will respond following the suspension of forward Valeri Nichushkin after entering Stage 3 of the NHL's Player Assistance Program.

DENVER — The nameplate above the locker for Valeri Nichushkin has already been removed at the Colorado Avalanche‘s practice facility.

It could be just for now — or possibly for good.

For a second consecutive year, the Avalanche are on the brink of elimination from the playoffs with Nichushkin, one of their top players, unavailable due to circumstances away from the ice.

This may be the last straw for the Avs when it comes to the talented 29-year-old Russian forward.

Nichushkin was suspended for at least six months without pay Monday night and placed in stage 3 of the league’s player assistance program. The National Hockey League and National Hockey League Players’ Association announced the news about an hour before the start of the Avalanche’s 5-1 loss to the Dallas Stars that left them trailing 3-1 in the second-round series.

Coach Jared Bednar refused to blame the loss on the absence of the team’s leading playoff scorer. After all, Colorado had been without Nichushkin earlier this season when he was receiving care; his return had buoyed Colorado, but stage 3 means he violated terms of the program, which provides help for everything from mental health needs to substance abuse.

Nichushkin will miss the rest of the post-season and the first month of next season at a minimum.

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Teammates heard word of his suspension at various times throughout the day. They were out of rhythm early in Game 4, outshot by a 16-2 margin in the first period and could never get on track. They must win Wednesday in Dallas to avoid elimination in the best-of-seven series.

“Obviously, tough for him, his family,” Colorado star Nathan MacKinnon said Tuesday after an optional practice, adding he was given the Nichushkin news from president Joe Sakic and general manager Chris MacFarland. “That’s all I’m going to say on that.”

Details of Nichushkin’s struggles have not been disclosed. In a first-round playoff series last spring against Seattle, Nichushkin abruptly left the team and missed the final five games of the post-season as the Avalanche lost the series 4-3.

In this run, Nichushkin has been a valuable contributor with a team-leading nine playoff goals. He is under contract through the 2029-30 season after signing an eight-year, $49 million contract with the Avalanche in 2022.

There’s no telling precisely when — or if — Nichushkin will be back. And if he returns, how will he earn back the trust of his teammates after they already gave him another chance?

“Val is obviously struggling with something,” Bednar said. ”Yeah, it sucks for our team. We’ve got to turn the page.”

“I want him to be happy and I want him to be content in his life, whether that is with our team or not with our team,” Bednar added. “We hope that he can find some peace and get help.”

The team is in its peak title-winning window, too, behind a core group that includes the 28-year-old MacKinnon; Cale Makar, 25; and Mikko Rantanen, 27. They’re also hoping for a return from Gabriel Landeskog, their 31-year-old captain who had cartilage replacement surgery on his right knee last May and is missing a second straight season.

The pressing concern for Colorado is finding a way to regroup and avoid another early exit.

“This is a tough business, this is our job and we’re giving it all we’ve got,” forward Andrew Cogliano said. “So I think we focus on the guys in the room. We have a lot of good people here who are trying to make a difference and at the end of the day it is what it is for us.”

The Avalanche also found out just before Game 4 that they would be without top defenseman Devon Toews because of an illness, another blow for a team that won the Stanley Cup championship in 2022.

“No one’s feeling sorry for us,” Cogliano said.

Nichushkin was unavailable for nearly two months earlier this season, from Jan. 13 to March 7, to receive care from the program for issues that were not released.

Last spring in the playoffs, Nichushkin’s absence started after officers responded to a crisis call at a Seattle hotel before Game 3. A 28-year-old woman was in an ambulance when officers arrived, and medics were told to speak with an Avalanche team physician to gather more details.

The report, obtained at the time from the Seattle Police Department by The Associated Press, said the Avalanche physician told officers that team employees found the woman when they were checking on Nichushkin. The physician told officers the woman appeared to be heavily intoxicated and requested EMS assistance.

Colorado’s season ended with a 2-1 home loss to the Kraken in Game 7.

It very well could end in Dallas on Wednesday.

“Obviously, we want Val in the lineup and we want (Toews) in the lineup,” MacKinnon said. “But I still feel like we’re good enough to win it all.”

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