Avalanche’s Valeri Nichushkin is be best $850,000 Joe Sakic ever spent

Picking a favorite Joe Sakic steal is like picking a favorite kid. But a salary-cap tip of $850,000 given three summers ago by Avalanche general manager Valeri Nichushkin, a business that has aged like the finest wines.

“You know, I think about that (sometimes),” reflected Nichushkin, the two-way forward – whose kissing court set up Burakovsky’s game-winning overtime laser for Andrew Burakovsky in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals – earlier this week.

“The way I was three years ago and where I am now. Feels good you know?”

Avs 4, Lightning 3. Feels great now that you mention it.

“He was great,” defender Bo Byram said of his Russia teammate, who had a goal and an assist with six team-high shots in Game 1. “(Nichushkin) is a playoff player.”

On the NHL’s deepest list, the 27-year-old winger keeps finding ways to stand out — and it’s not just because he’s 6-foot-4 in flip-flops.

Once the Stanley Cup turns on that spotlight, there’s nowhere to hide. You don’t find the moment. the moment finds you

And yet, the more they cranked up the temperature, the cooler Nichushkin looked. Only Nathan MacKinnon (11 goals), Gabe Landeskog (nine) and Artturi Lehkonen (seven) have lit the lamp more times in this playoff run than the No. 13 with six goals.

The Peanut Gallery on Twitter will tell you that any schmo would look salty on a line that also has MacKinnon and Landeskog walking alongside. But coach Jared Bednar’s move to keep Nichushkin as the right wing of this top flight has aces up its sleeve on at least two fronts.

For one thing, moving Mikko Rantanen to the second line of Avs gave the latter more firepower. Second, while Rantanen and center Nazem Kadri forged a relationship that at times seemed almost telepathic, Nichushkin has all but improved over the past six weeks everyone on-ice combination to which it belongs.

“He’s a huge X-Factor,” Bednar said of Nichushkin after Game 1. “He’s been doing things (like that) for us for a couple of years now. (What) an incredible season he’s had so far. He made the difference for us almost every night.”

Big Val has always had the physical attributes – size, speed, vision, defensive ability, soft hands – to turn the script around with a flick of the wrist. But when you throw a bucket of confidence, poise and swagger into the mix, it’s a matchup nightmare. Also for the double defense Stanley Cup Champions.

“He skates (good). He is tall. He’s physically fit,” Byram said of Nichushkin, who scored a career-record 25 goals in the regular season. “He was definitely one of our best players for the playoffs. We are very lucky to have him.”

attached to him? That’s the tricky part. Nichushkin, like Kadri, is slated to become an unrestricted free agent after the end of that magic carpet ride. And like Kadri, it’s hard to imagine the Avs dancing this far without him.

“It was amazing,” Nichuskin said of Avs fans. “I like to go for walks a lot. And when I go outside, I feel like everyone knows me… it feels good.”

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