Valeri Nichushkin making star turn during Stanley Cup playoffs

Valeri Nichushkin making star turn during Stanley Cup playoffs
Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Like an indie band suddenly going from dive bars to selling out stadiums, every now and then, an “analytics darling” hits the mainstream. For a significant chunk of the NHL playoffs, Valeri Nichushkin‘s been gathering a wider following. Yet, in being a key catalyst in the Avalanche’s 4-3 OT win in Game 1 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, Nichushkin Awareness reached another level.

If you’ve followed nerdy conversations on Hockey Twitter (and the sometimes … excessive backlash of those conversations), then you may agree that Nichushkin’s rise to prominence feels like a long-time coming. And it also feels a little surreal.

If you’re Nichushkin’s wallet, you also may start to feel fatter soon. It won’t hurt the 27-year-old’s bank account that he’s becoming a UFA just as people are realizing that he’s more than just a “spreadsheet star.”

Nichushkin rises in potential free agent market after a breakout season with Avalanche

Again, Valeri Nichushkin’s Game 1 performance turned plenty of heads.

Every now and then, a “fancy stats” star bridges the gap to appeal to the old and new-school alike. That’s absolutely the case with Nichushkin. Soak in this Valeri Nichushkin Game 1 highlight reel from Dimitri Filipovic:

If there’s a single word that comes to mind, it’s tenacious.

Want grit and hustle? Nichushkin overflows with elbow grease. Do you almost get a little weird talking about “active sticks?” Nichushkin supplies your fix. Just watch Victor Hedman become increasingly annoyed in those clips above. Now that is a player who is “tough to play against.”

[Can the Lightning slow the Avalanche down?]

To an extent, this is how Nichushkin’s been playing for years. In September 2020, J Fresh broke down Nichushkin’s budding status as an analytics darling (and how that annoyed many people). J Fresh spliced together some clips of Nichushkin being a forechecking/loose puck demon. Frankly, you see a lot of the big, skilled, hard-working player who made such an impact in the Avalanche’s playoff run.

Heck, Jaromir Jagr called it in 2013.

As Jagr aged, he evolved into a puck possession menace. There are elements of that presence in Nichushkin’s game.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Nichushkin has the skills that come with being the 10th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. But it’s hard work that propelled Nichushkin from possible “draft bust” to bursting all the way to borderline-star recognition.

Opportunity plus growing offense

So, what’s changed to thrust Nichushkin into the mainstream?

As much as anything else, the Avalanche finally unleashed Nichushkin. And, sure, he’s enjoying a well-timed hot streak.

In 2019-20, Nichushkin gained underground Selke hype (some real, some sardonic). While averaging 14:04 minutes per game, Nichushkin scored 13 goals and 27 points in 65 contests. Not eye-popping at first glance. But he clearly made the most of just about every minute.

His 2020-21 numbers are similar. His goals (10) and points (21) were modest, though commendable in 55 games and 14:05 TOI per night.

Even in the early stages of Nichushkin’s career, he showed signs of being a strong defensive player. Take a glance at this Hockey Viz chart through 2019:

That chart captured Nichushkin around the time of an extreme bit of bad puck luck. In 57 games back in 2018-19, Nichushkin failed to score a single goal (settling for 10 assists) on 65 shots on goal.

No doubt, it took time for Nichushkin to build back not just his confidence, but the perception about his game.

Even as recently as 2020-21, you might’ve missed what made Nichushkin increasingly special. Then the 2021-22 season (and this 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs run) happened.

[X-factors for the 2022 Stanley Cup Final]

Some of it was opportunity.

Nichushkin’s ice time skyrocketed to 19:02 per game, helping him score 25 goals and 52 points in just 62 games. Prorated over a full 82-game season, that’s between 68-69 points.

Through 15 playoff games, Nichushkin’s scored five goals and six assists (11 points) for the Avs.

And, sure, there was some luck.

Nichushkin scored his 25 goals, more than his last three seasons combined. His shooting percentage was 13.9%, compared to a career average of 9.7. The puck luck was larger than that, as his on-ice shooting percentage (12.3%) was in double-digits for just the second time in his career.

If that regular season wasn’t enough, Nichushkin’s wowed people during the playoffs. Apparently even Avalanche coach Jared Bednar is surprised by how big of a leap he’s seen from Nichushkin.

Pondering Nichushkin’s next contract — with Avalanche, or as a free agent

So, for an Avalanche team needing to balance salary cap demands, and possible free agent suitors, there’s a multi-million dollar question with Nichushkin. How much is he really worth? How much of this is “for real?”

If the Avalanche let Nichushkin become a free agent, any suitor must consider how the Avs optimized his numbers. Mason Marchment — an even more mysterious UFA who broke out — “rode the wave” with the Panthers. To some extent, that likely inflated Nichushkin’s stats, too.

To be clear, there’s a lot to love about the process. Nichushkin’s consistently been a player who drives the sort of results that help his team.

Things just get tricky when such a player goes from a $2.5M bargain to, perhaps, a risky contract.

Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool spits out some fascinating results for Nichushkin and two other Avalanche free agents: Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky.

Personally, I see some parallels between Nichushkin and some other analytics darlings who eventually started scoring enough to get attention.

With Tyler Toffoli, he arguably reached a new level of recognition after signing a team-friendly contract. Zach Hyman‘s worth every penny so far, but one could imagine a scenario where he’s overpaid. Blake Coleman and Phillip Danault are other players who rode high-profile Stanley Cup/playoff runs to contracts with significant term and dollars.

Again, most — maybe all — of those players are worth their cap hits, especially at the moment. It’s very possible that Valeri Nichushkin would justify (and out-play) a seven-year deal with a $6.357M cap hit, or something similar. This is a player who breaks models; The Athletic’s model gauged his market value at $10.7M.

Really, a cautious team might take note if the Avalanche merely allow Nichushkin to be a free agent in the first place.

Staying in Colorado is possible, but by no means a guarantee

Look at the way the Avalanche and Lightning have been built. Both of those teams have rarely dipped into the free agent market. When they do, they’ve mainly rummaged through bargain bins.

The worry with Nichushkin is that a big contract would set expectations too high, production-wise. If a lot of his game is about will as much as skill, then fans might not tolerate dry spells where the puck isn’t going in.

At 27, Nichushkin isn’t exactly a baby, either. Smart teams at least consider the ominous “aging curve.”

Theoretically, the Avalanche could sign Nichushkin. After all, Cap Friendly projects them to have about $25.69M in cap space. That number is deceptive, however. For one thing, there are other free agents, such as Kadri. The Avs also need to be careful, as Nathan MacKinnon needs a new deal after the 2022-23 season.

Perhaps a wiser goal for the Avalanche and other potential Nichushkin free agent suitors is to find the “next” Nichushkin. The Avs may look to their own history for examples.

[Power rankings: top potential free agents]

The Maple Leafs present another case. Yes, losing Zach Hyman hurt. However, they found a real gem in Michael Bunting at a bargain $950,000.

Of course, finding the next Nichushkin/Bunting/Hyman isn’t really “easy.” Some team might see enough from Nichushkin’s playoff run to justify a premium price. Frankly, they might end up right.

Either way, it’s a fascinating situation to watch. That delightfully applies on the ice, too. The havoc Nichushkin creates is pretty glorious to witness, unless you’re trying to stop him.

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    Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews returns to ice, hints at retirement

    Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    CHICAGO — Longtime Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews returned to the ice but hinted his stellar NHL career could be winding down after 15 years.

    Toews, 34, skated with teammates prior to Chicago’s game with the Dallas Stars. It was his first time practicing with them since a game in Edmonton on Jan. 28.

    He made a statement through the team on Feb. 19 saying he would be stepping away because of the effects of Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and “long COVID.”

    In meeting with reporters, Toews stopped short of saying he hoped to play in any of last-place Chicago’s nine remaining games. His eight-year, $84 million contract is set to expire at the end of the season.

    Toews said he’s feeling stronger, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play again for the Blackhawks or another team.

    “Both if I’m being fully honest,” Toews said. “I feel like I’ve said it already, that I’ve gotten to the point where my health is more important.

    “When you’re young and you’re playing for a Stanley Cup and everyone’s playing through something, that means something and it’s worthwhile. But I’m at that point where it feels like more damage is being done than is a good thing.”

    Toews, the Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick (third overall) in 2006, joined the team in 2007 and was a pillar of Stanley Cup championship clubs in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

    At the peak of his career, he was one of the NHL’s top two-way centers, winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 2013.

    In 1,060 regular-season games, Toews has 371 goals and 509 assists. In 139 playoff games, he’s posted 45 goals and 74 assists, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010.

    Toews missed the entire 2020-21 season with Chronic Immune Response System, which caused debilitating inflammation and fatigue.

    He appeared in 71 games in 2021-22, then started this season with renewed energy before slowing and eventually shutting himself down.

    Entering this season, it looked as if Chicago might deal him, as it did fellow star Patrick Kane, before the March trade deadline. But Kane went to the New York Rangers and Toews to injured reserve.

    Toews believed he was progressing before a relapse in January left him so sore and tired that he could barely “put on my skates or roll out of bed to come to the rink.”

    Toews said his progress over the past month has been “pretty encouraging” and he’s delighted to be back among his teammates. He has no timetable beyond that.

    “We’re just going to go day by day here,” Chicago coach Luke Richardson said. He deserves anything he wants to try to achieve here.”

    Richardson hoped Toews “can take that next step later in the week and hopefully (he) gives us the green light to go in a game.”

    But Toews emphasized his long-term health and ability to lead a “normal life” is most important. He wants to go out on a positive note and not hit the ice for a game playing through excessive pain and dysfunction.

    “It’s definitely on my mind that this could be my last few weeks here as a Blackhawk in Chicago,” Toews said. “It’s definitely very important for me to go out there and enjoy the game and just kind of soak it in and just really appreciate everything I’ve been able to be part of here in Chicago.”

    Budding Wild star Matt Boldy more willing to shoot, and it shows

    Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

    ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Boldy was unable to resist a smile in the aftermath of his second hat trick in five games for the Minnesota Wild, a young right wing and reluctant star trying to make sense of a remarkable hot streak.

    Does the puck feel as if it’s automatically going in the net these days each time he shoots?

    “Yeah, it does,” Boldy said in the locker room after leading the first-place Wild to a 5-1 win over Seattle. “My linemates are playing great. Hopefully you guys are giving them a lot of credit. You look at some of those goals – just putting it on a tee for me.”

    This non-attention-seeker has found himself squarely in the NHL spotlight. Boldy has 11 goals in nine games since Wild superstar Kirill Kaprizov was sidelined with a lower-body injury to raise his goal total to 28, in part because he’s been more willing to shoot. With vision and stickhandling as strengths and the humility of being a second-year player, it’s easy to be in a pass-first mindset.

    “Everybody kind of took turns talking to him. But it’s not that he didn’t want to. A lot of times a situation like that where a guy’s got that skillset, it’s a real unselfish quality, right?” coach Dean Evason said. “But I think he gets now that he helps the team a lot when he scores goals.”

    The Wild were confident enough in Boldy’s scoring ability to commit a seven-year, $49 million contract extension to him earlier this winter, after all.

    “I think I’ve always had that mentality, but sometimes you just get into spots and it comes off your stick good,” Boldy said. “When things are going well, the puck goes in the net.”’

    The Wild are 6-1-2 without Kaprizov. Boldy is a big reason why.

    “You go through the slumps, you learn what you need to do to score. I think he’s found a good way to be in the right spot and shoot the puck when he had a good opportunity,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said.

    The Wild have only won one division title in 22 years, the five-team Northwest Division in 2007-08. They’re leading the eight-team Central Division with eight games to go, with both Colorado and Dallas too close for comfort. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.

    With Kaprizov due back before the postseason and Boldy on this heater, a Wild team that ranks just 23rd in the league in goals per game (2.93) ought to have a better chance to advance. Eriksson Ek and Marcus Johansson have been ideal linemates for the Boston College product and Massachusetts native.

    Since the Wild entered the league in the 2000-01 season, only five NHL players have had more hat tricks at age 21 or younger than Boldy with three: Patrik Laine (eight), Marian Gaborik (five), Steven Stamkos (five), Alex DeBrincat (four) and Connor McDavid (four). Boldy turns 22 next week, so there’s still time for one or two more.

    “He’s big. He controls the puck a lot. He’s got a good shot, good release. He’s smart. He switches it up. He’s got good moves on breakaways. He’s a total player,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Fun to watch him grow this year.”

    Pezzetta scores shootout winner; Canadiens beat Sabres 4-3

    canadiens sabres
    Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports

    BUFFALO, N.Y. ⁠— Brendan Gallagher and the Montreal Canadiens rallied back to avoid playoff elimination with less than three weeks left in their season. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, are running out of chances to stay in the Eastern Conference wild-card hunt.

    Gallagher forced overtime by scoring his 200th career goal, and Michael Pezzetta scored the decisive shootout goal in a 4-3 win over the Sabres on Monday night.

    “It’s one of those things I think we earned that chance. We weren’t fantastic but we did enough on the road tonight to get a win,” Gallagher said. “Smiles all around.”

    The Canadiens could laugh, especially after Pezzetta celebrated his goal by putting his stick between his legs and riding it like a wooden horse — much like former NHL tough guy Dave “Tiger” Williams did during his 14-year NHL career spanning the 1970s and 80s.

    “I’m not sure we’ll see that again. One of a kind,” said Gallagher. “I’d be worried about falling over.”

    Pezzetta scored by driving in from the right circle to beat Eric Comrie inside the far post. Buffalo’s Jack Quinn scored in the fourth shootout round, but was matched by Montreal’s Jesse Ylonen, whose shot from in tight managed to trickle in through Comrie.

    Jordan Harris and Alex Belzile also scored for Montreal, and Jake Allen stopped 30 shots through overtime, while allowing one goal on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal would have been eliminated from playoff contention for a second straight season – and two years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final – with any type of loss.

    The Sabres squandered a 3-2 third-period lead to drop to 3-6-3 in their past 12. Buffalo also blew a chance to move to within four points of idle Pittsburgh, which holds the eighth and final playoff spot.

    “Just a little hesitation,” forward JJ Peterka said of the Sabres third-period lapse. “We didn’t play with much energy and we didn’t play that aggressive as we played the two periods before. I think that was the difference.”

    Buffalo’s Lukas Rousek scored a goal and added an assist while filling in for leading scorer Tage Thompson, who did not play due to an upper body injury. Peterka and defenseman Riley Stillman also scored, and Comrie stopped 38 shots through overtime, and allowed two goals on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal blew two one-goal leads to fall behind 3-2 on Stillman’s goal at the 8:31 mark of the second period.

    Gallagher scored on the fly by using Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin as a screen to snap in a shot inside the far left post. With the goal, Gallagher tied Bobby Rousseau for 24th on the Canadiens career scoring list.

    “I liked the way we corrected ourselves, it’s a sign of maturity, in the way we stayed on task,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said, in recalling how the Canadiens recently unraveled in an 8-4 loss two weeks ago to Colorado, which plays a similar up-tempo style as Buffalo.


    The Sabres hosted their third Pride Night, with Russian D Ilya Lyubushkin electing not to participate in warmups by citing an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Moscow, where he has family and visits in the offseason. The remainder of the team wore dark blue jerseys with the Sabres logo on the front encircled by a rainbow-colored outline.

    During the first intermission, the Sabres broadcast a video in which GM Kevyn Adams said: “This is about recognizing someone’s humanity and true identity. We know there are people out there struggling with who they are, and we want them to know that they have an ally in the Buffalo Sabres.”


    Canadiens: At the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

    Sabres: Host the New York Rangers on Friday night.

    Flyers chairman Scott to retire; Hilferty becomes successor

    Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    PHILADELPHIA — Dave Scott will retire as chairman of the Philadelphia Flyers’ parent company Comcast Spectacor and be replaced by Dan Hilferty.

    Hilferty, who was recently named CEO of Comcast Spectacor, will succeed Scott as chairman of the company on April 17 and as the team’s governor on July 1.

    Scott joined Comcast Spectacor in December 2013 and the Flyers have struggled under his reign. They will miss the playoffs for a third straight season and haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1975.

    “Our number one goal for the Flyers will be to consistently compete for the Stanley Cup,” Hilferty said. “It is going to be a process that will take time to get on that path, but I’m confident we are headed in the right direction with Danny Briere as interim GM, Coach Tortorella, and our hiring of a President of Hockey Operations soon. Our leadership team will be fully focused to deliver on this for our fans while also continuing to make the sports complex the best location for sports and entertainment in the nation.”

    As Chairman and CEO of Comcast Spectacor, Hilferty will lead the company’s entire portfolio, including the Philadelphia Flyers. Spectacor Sports and Entertainment CEO Valerie Camillo will continue to work directly with Hilferty, overseeing the Wells Fargo Center, including its continued transformation, and lead the Flyers’ business operations.