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.

Scroll Down For: