Valeri Nichushkin: Underrated Gem to Stanley Cup Champion
Hey guys! As you know, Val Nichushkin was an absolute monster for the Avs these playoffs and deserves a fair share of credit for their magical Cup run.
Nichushkin posted a dominant 9 goals and 6 assists for 15 points in 20 post-season games playing on Colorado's second line. The Avs dominated play whenever Val was on the ice and the underlying numbers show it.
But while Nichushkin is just getting the name recognition and becoming a household name now, he should have been a long time ago. Despite not getting great production until recently, if you look beyond point totals and consider context, Valeri Nichushkin was an awesome player all along.
Valeri Nichushkin's Last Season In Dallas (2018-19):
Contrary to public belief, even back in his 2018-19 Dallas days, Val Nichushkin always showed signs of promise. Lack of opportunity and finishing skill just hampered his point totals. Dallas isn't the best place for a young, offensively skilled forward to play. The Dallas Stars locked Nichushkin in their bottom-six without any powerplay time and stuck him with Tyler Pitlick, Brett Ritchie, Blake Comeau, Devin Shore and Andrew Cogliano. Dallas also employs a rigid, primarily defensive system. It is really tough for a young player not named McDavid, Matthews, MacKinnon or Crosby to do well in that situation. Yet, Valeri Nichushkin made a strong impact for the Stars against all odds.
Val Nichushkin proved his worth defensively in Dallas (best xGA/60 of any Stars forward) while demonstrating strong offensive upside despite the lack of points. According to Corey Sznjader's microstat charts, Valeri Nichushkin was 2nd of Stars forwards in Primary Shot Assists and 4th of Stars forwards in Shots when they were adjusted for TOI. Val also had a carry-in percentage of 60% (albeit with a small sample of entries taken).
Valeri Nichushkin's 1st Season in Colorado (2019-20):
In the off-season after the 2018-19 season, the Colorado Avalanche signed Nichushkin to a 1-year, $850K contract. Colorado put Nichushkin in a much better position to maximize his strengths and find success in the NHL. The Avs had much better linemates to surround Val with. (Imagine going from Kadri, Burakovsky, Compher, Bellemare and Matt Calvert. They also gave Nichushkin top-six minutes (Rantanen wasn't playing because of his contract holdout and there was a slot).
With more ice-time, better players to work with and a faster, higher-tempo system to play under, Valeri Nichushkin thrived. The Avs dominated both the expected and actual goal shares when Nichushkin was on the ice, largely because of Nichushkin's outstanding defensive play. Val Nichushkin actually had the best Expected Goals Against rate in the entire NHL in his first season with Colorado. Nichushkin's skillset complemented everyone on the Avs because his awesome defence. allowed the team to create offence through transition faster and more frequently.
While Valeri Nichushkin's point totals certainly improved from the season prior in Dallas (he went from a 0.175 point per game to a 0.415), his value goes beyond the point totals. According to Evolving Hockey's expected goal model (xG), Val Nichushkin improved the rate his team scored goals and generated quality scoring chances better than about 89.43% of players in the 2019-20 season.
Valeri Nichushkin's 2nd Season in Colorado (2020-21):
The next season, Nichushkin's rockstar playdriving continued despite having a slight drop-off in linemate quality. Val didn't play with Kadri as much when Rantanen played the whole year, Val played moreso with Donskoi, Jost, Compher and Burakovsky (still awesome).
While still playing outstanding defensively, Nichushkin improved his playdriving greatly in the 2020-21 season compared to the 2019-20 season. Nichushkin improved the rate his team drove quality scoring chances (xGF/60) better than 98.65% of players. Despite this, Val's GF/60 floated around league average and his point totals stayed very similar to how they were the year prior.
I am still looking further into possible reasons for how things worked out this way, but that's beside the point (Val, his linemates and Colorado as a whole were all solid in finishing so it is a bit strange).
Valeri Nichushkin's Breakout 3rd Season in Colorado (2021-22):
People forget that before Valeri Nichushkin's amazing playoffs, he had a breakout regular season in terms of point totals. Nichushkin put up 25 goals and 27 assists for 52 points in 62 regular season games this year (that's a 0.838 point per game).
Nichushkin split his minutes this season playing between Colorado's first line with MacKinnon and Rantanen and their second line with Naz and Burakovsky.
Val Nichushkin was a RAPM king (as per usual), maintaining his awesome GF/60, xGF/60 and xGA/60 numbers.
So what should we take from Valeri Nichushkin's rapid ascent?
The biggest thing I can take away from Valeri Nichushkin's success in Colorado is that every player's impact can not be defined by point totals. Each of his last four years in the NHL (2018-19 in Dallas, 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 in Colorado), Valeri Nichushkin made his teammates better and helped his team win hockey games. However, very few people gave him any credit for his contributions because he lacked the point totals of a strong player. Because Valeri Nichushkin didn't put up points, he didn't get noticed by most hockey fans.
After his strong point production this regular season and playoffs, Nichushkin is finally recognized as the outstanding, effective top-line complementary winger he is... but now any team that wants him is going to need to pay $6-million AAV.
The greatest hockey minds, the Joe Sakics and Steve Yzermans of the world, try to find effective/skilled, underappreciated players like Valeri Nichushkin BEFORE the points start rolling in.
As hockey fans trying to increase our knowledge of the game, we should try to do the same.