The data behind why Valeri Nichushkin is one of the Avalanche’s most valuable players

We all expect to talk about Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar after a victory as important as Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. But today we rightly focus on Valeri Nichushkin.

The winger has had an interesting run so far, but his career year has extended into the playoffs. And the first game showed how much of a difference he can make, even in a team full of stars. He’s secondary to elite talent, but a key part of what makes this team so full of talent.

It could have been easy to write off Nichushkin earlier in his NHL tenure. He was drafted with the 10th overall pick in 2013 by the Dallas Stars, and never lived up to the reputation that comes with such a lofty pick. Dallas bought out the second and final year of a two-year contract that carried a cap of $2.95 million.

At the time, Nichushkin was not the difference maker they probably hoped he would become. But he was an efficient and solid player defensively, which is always valuable in this league. So that makes him a prime example of what can go wrong if a team drops a player too soon, even if they don’t have the point total they were hoping for.

Colorado clearly benefited from the move, as they signed him to a one-year deal that same offseason for just $850,000. Nichushkin responded by scoring a career-best 1.77 of 60 points, but that tally only scratches the surface of his contributions. The Avalanche extended it for two years, with a cap of $2.5 million. Now that contract is about to expire, which is pretty perfect for the winger who is having the best year of his NHL career.

Nichushkin’s 2020-21 season was the best example of a player’s effectiveness despite not being a prolific goalscorer. There is a suitable place in the lineup for a player of this caliber, probably closer to the middle six than the front six. But this year, when that forward scored 25 goals and 52 points, all scored at a career-high rate, he rightfully earned a promotion as he made his way to the top of the roster. And it also pays playoff dividends.

What makes Nichushkin so effective?

The winger can be trusted in all situations, on both sides of the ice. Not only that, but he’s not just too one-dimensional defensive forward to pick up the pace of the game either. This is especially important in today’s game which emphasizes speed and skill. Having real skills with the puck, even without an elite goal-scoring touch, is essential in this league. While someone can play defense and be trusted to prevent opponents from generating quality chances, that only counts one end of the ice. It helps to have a player who can apply some pressure, even if it’s just rolling the puck and slowing down the clock.

That can certainly be said for Nichushkin, who helped his team generate 58% on five-on-five shooting share in the regular season. While he’s on the ice, Colorado isn’t content to stick on the outside and waste time until more skilled players jump over the boards, either. In the regular season, the Avalanche created 3.47 expected goals while deployed, which was near 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. This helps the Avalanche regain possession and either extend their zone time or drive up the blue line. This also translates to being shorthanded, where he disrupts opposing power plays in formation.

Take this game 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 playoff against the Blues, when the winger showed the little plays he can make to gain possession.

Here’s another example of the work Nichushkin has done to help his team reset and reload for another offensive opportunity. The result is a chance to score on Nichushkin’s rebound.

This clip takes us to another one of his key skills – retrieving loose pucks. It’s something he showed a propensity for in the regular season and didn’t let go in the playoffs. In fact, he particularly stood out in the playoffs with the eighth highest puck recovery rate in the offensive zone. It’s because he found a loose puck on a rebound like the clip above against St. Louis, or because he fought under pressure.

The growth of his game is that he doesn’t just make plays to facilitate his teammates. He always does exactly that, which is why he fits so well alongside a player like MacKinnon. But now it also offers dangerous opportunities through these efforts.

And best of all, it has the results to match.

It all came together in Game 1 against the Lightning. At even strength, he collected eight loose pucks, got the puck over the blue line with control five times and had three slot shots.

One of those lunge shots ended up going past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

And one of those puck recoveries also had a direct impact; Nichushkin secured possession and set up Andre Burakovsky for the game-winner in 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 didn’t change even as the pressure increased in the playoffs; he was one of the most valuable players throughout the playoffs. Now Nichushkin has a direct impact on his team’s chances of winning an even bigger trophy.

Data via Sportlogiq

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