Valeri Nichushkin, amid breakout Avalanche season, embraces top-line assignment to begin playoffs
The most improved Avalanche player on the roster this season is a man of few words.
“Just try to work hard as possible,” said Valeri Nichushkin, a 27-year-old Russian forward with an imposing 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame. “That’s why I’m getting better.”
The results should be evident Tuesday night when Colorado hosts Nashville in Game 1 of their Western Conference playoff series at Ball Arena. Nichushkin will be featured on the Avs’ top line beside established stars Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. It’s no fluke.
“Val has become one of the top power forwards in the league, undercover,” MacKinnon said.
Nichushkin surges into the postseason with a career-high 52 points — 25 goals and 27 assists — over 62 games played. He’s been arguably the team’s most consistent player over the final two months of the season with increased opportunities during Gabe Landeskog’s injury absence for knee surgery.
“He’s a big body that skates better than most big bodies. He’s been so good for us,” defenseman Devon Toews said. “He’s a quiet leader and he’s a driving force for our team when he gets moving. Working down low, we can see what he can do offensively, too. He’s part of the PK, six on five and five on six for us. He plays in all situations.”
It’s a far cry from the player Colorado signed to a one-year, $850,000 contract back in 2019. Nichushkin, the Stars’ No. 10 overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft, never lived up to the hype in Dallas. He failed to record a goal over 57 games played during the 2018-19 season and the Stars bought out the remainder of his $5.9 million contract.
Nichushkin’s goal-less streak extended to 91 games before he broke through on Nov. 24, 2019, in a home loss against Toronto. Nichushkin previously told The Denver Post it was “the hardest time in my life” going through that slump. His Avalanche trajectory has been rising ever since.
“It just seems, like everybody, if you don’t score enough you lose (confidence) a little bit,” Nichushkin said. “But then you score and you get it back.”
Nichushkin aims to keep that positive momentum against Nashville. Don’t be fooled by his humble demeanor.
“He’s a little bit on the quiet side. But he’s a competitive guy,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “Every time he touches the ice … it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. He’s competitive and he carries that over to the games. There are all kinds of leaders that you have in your room. He leads by example. He plays the right way every rep he takes in practice. He’s doing it right at top speed, a lot like (MacKinnon). He carries it over to the game.”
MacKinnon on Duchene. MacKinnon was asked about Nashville first-line winger Matt Duchene, the former Avs star who was traded to Ottawa in a blockbuster deal in November 2017. Colorado received seven pieces from the Senators and Predators, including Sam Girard from Nashville and Ottawa’s 2019 first-round pick, Bo Byram (fourth overall).
“Dutchy is a good person. He just needed a change in scenery,” MacKinnon said of the trade Duchene demanded. “Obviously, we got a great, great trade for him. That helped obviously, but that was so long ago. Dutchie is a great player, had an awesome year. That’s really about it, I think.”
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