‘He’s a huge X factor’

DENVER — The stars of the Colorado Avalanche dominated the headlines ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Valeri Nichushkin dominated on the ice.

To the uninitiated, Nichushkin’s terrific all-around performance in Colorado’s 4-3 overtime win in Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning—including a goal and an important assist for Andre Burakovsky’s gamewinner—may have come as a surprise. He is by far the least known top line skater in this series, hiding in the shadow of Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog.

No longer. Consider Wednesday’s game a coming-out party for Nichushkin, who has plenty of fans in the Avs dressing room and whose value continues to rise.

“He’s a huge X-Factor,” coach Jared Bednar said of Nichushkin after Game 1. “He’s had an incredible season so far. He made the difference for us almost every night. His ability to check and check pucks back to hold them We play attacking, you saw that tonight: he had some really good scoring chances for himself and obviously a big game at net that he was able to set up [Burakovsky]. He has played [well] with MacKinnon and Landeskog on that line.”

Colorado knew its depth would be tested when Nazem Kadri was sidelined indefinitely with a broken thumb sustained in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals against the Edmonton Oilers. The Avalanche swore they would fill Kadri’s vacancy by committee. Nichushkin was the chairman of this committee.

After Kadri’s exit, Nichushkin was promoted to Colorado’s top line and scored twice in the Avalanche’s come-from-behind win of that contest. Since then, he’s mostly been in that lineup spot for more and more powerful returns.

Colorado could count on Nichushkin performing there. The 27-year-old had a career-enhancing regular season with 25 goals and 52 points in 62 games. Those were his highest totals in nearly a decade. With a stacked Avalanche team, nobody really noticed.

Externally at least.

“That’s a long list of things for me,” Bednar said of what makes Nichushkin so special. “He’s such a good all-around player, with or without the puck, it’s hard to describe what he brings with him. … It’s hard to play against when you’re committed like Val. And then he has the ability to play with high-end talent, do plays and finish things. He’s just a lot to handle.

That was the case throughout the playoffs, where Nichushkin scored six goals and eleven points in 15 games while averaging almost 20 minutes of ice time per game.

“Val is a big part of our team and our attacking game and our control game and helps in all areas,” added Landeskog. “He was huge and he just keeps getting better and better and he’s a big, important piece for us.”

Flying under the radar has served Nichushkin well so far. But unlike those who slept on him, Nichushkin is wide awake to the opportunity at hand.

“It’s amazing,” Nichushkin said of playing with MacKinnon and Landeskog. “But you have to prove that in every game. You can’t be sleepy. I really like it.”

The idea that Nichushkin could become a top-end contributor once felt like a pipe dream. The 10th overall Dallas Stars champion in 2013 had endured a circuitous — and largely unfortunate — journey to the Avalanche. It even took him out of the NHL entirely.

Colorado believed in Nichushkin’s potential. Together they brought him back to the NHL.

Nichushkin’s story is a tale of wealth to rags (and back to wealth).

The Stars voted him an outstanding KHL player, making his impressive debut in this league at the age of just 17 with Traktor from his hometown of Chelyabinsk. That same season, he was a powerful force for Russia at the IIHF World Junior Championships, turning Americans’ heads when he scored the overtime winner against Canada to give Russia a bronze medal.

Nichushkin was a 6-foot-4, 200-pound teenager who was thought to have mastered the entire “power forward” package with high hockey IQ, speed, good hands, strong finishing and playing talent.

All Nichushkin had to do was transfer that game to the NHL.

He came out with a solid rookie season in 2013/14, producing 14 goals and 34 points in 79 games. A feared second-year slump would follow. Nichushkin dealt with hip and groin problems in early 2014/15, opting to have surgery on the former, which limited him to just eight games. His third season was a disappointing 29-point performance.

When Nichushkin’s entry-level contract expired in 2016, he was dissatisfied enough in Dallas to sign a contract with CSKA Moscow and return to the KHL for two seasons. The stars lured him back to the United States in July 2018 on a two-year, $5.9 million deal. Nichushkin never lived up to the investment.

The Dallas Do-Over lasted one season. When Nichushkin failed to score in 57 games during his 2018-19 season, the Stars put him on unconditional waivers and bought up the rest of his deal.

Nichushkin looked for another shot. The avalanche took a flyer.

Colorado signed Nichushkin to a one-year, $850,000 deal in August 2019, making a low-risk commitment that could potentially pay off.

Spoiler alert: it has.

“We brought him in and his confidence was down,” said Bednar. “It’s built over the years and he is [become] such a big part of our team. What he does doesn’t go unnoticed in our locker room and by all the other guys. They know the role he can play in our success.”

Nichushkin always had the ability. What he needed was patience and the right environment to thrive. Colorado offered both.

“It’s the system we play and what we ask our players to do on the defensive side [that’s] a great strength of Val,” said Bednar. “He’s a big, long, strong guy who can skate and suits us. The fights, the races he can win, that suits his style.”

The winger slowly switched his game with the Avalanche, amassing 23 goals and 48 points in 120 games from 2019-21. Nikhushkin was fine. He was solid.

That season he graduated to stardom. Even Bednar didn’t see this coming.

“I’m a bit surprised at how far he’s come with his game,” admitted Bednar. “And on the other hand, there are many reasons why it’s not surprising to me. He has found his place here. He started on our third line, went to our second, now he’s playing on our first. He earned every step of it . He’s very dedicated, highly motivated and he puts in a lot of work and he’s one of our hardest working guys.”

That starts for Nichushkin in the gym. Bednar is regularly among the last people to leave Colorado’s facilities after editing videos or preparing games. But Nichushkin’s discipline often leaves him alone to turn off the light.

“I’ll walk out of the room and see Val walk out of the room; he’s just finished lifting,” Bednar said. “That’s the guy he is. And then he’s already here in the morning. He’s not hurt, he doesn’t need treatment, but he’s here. He’ll put in some work every day so it’s not surprising he takes off where he is.”

Bednar compares Nichushkin to MacKinnon in their meticulousness and hunger for improvement. Nichushkin’s teammates are used to seeing (and discussing) MacKinnon’s level of focus; Now they can also put Nichushkin in the same category.

“Val is just an ambitious player,” said defender Devon Toews. “He works so hard off the ice to prepare. In the playoffs, he’s got such a strong, big body and he’s playing the game so hard. For a big guy to skate so well, it’s kind of a lost art. You don’t see that often: a guy with his size, with his ability to move and protect pucks, and he finds himself in great scoring areas and plays really well for us.

Colorado expects this cup final to be a grind. Bednar admitted Friday that the Avalanche are yet to see Tampa Bay’s best game.

The same could be said of Nichushkin. Suddenly his ceiling feels ominously high. That would go a long way considering Kadri’s status remains up in the air. The injured center has resumed skating with a stick, but there’s no word on future availability.

Which means Nichushkin should remain in Colorado’s top six, vitally.

After a long way he belongs there.

“Val is a horse,” said JT Compher. “He defends so well. He runs so well. He’s physical. He uses his body. He’s skilled. He’s got a really good shot. He’s done a great job giving us options throughout our line-up. He plays the right way every night. He’s difficult to play against. He’s been a very important player for us all year, especially in the post-season.”

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