Avalanche's Valeri Nichushkin is having himself a playoffs — and earning himself a payday

Avalanche’s Valeri Nichushkin is having himself a playoffs — and earning himself a payday

DENVER — Ask his coach, Jared Bednar, and Valeri Nichushkin is “built for this time of year.”

Ask his teammates, like Cale Makar, and Nichushkin is a “train for us,” the “full package.”

Josh Manson calls him “amazing.” Andrew Cogliano calls him “an absolute horse.”

Colorado Avalanche players and coaches have long known how valuable the big, lanky, strong-skating bookend to the dangerous Gabriel Landeskog–Nathan MacKinnon top-line duo is. Surely general manager Joe Sakic knows, too, and he must be holding his breath in anticipation of what Nichushkin’s agent, Mark Gandler, is going to seek to prevent his client from testing free agency in less than a month.

But the secret is starting to slip out to the rest of the National Hockey League, people who may just remember the Nichushkin who once went 91 consecutive games without a goal.

“Val some nights — most nights — is our best player, to be honest,” the 35-year-old Cogliano, a veteran of more than 1,250 regular-season and playoff games, said after Nichushkin scored two more goals, including the winner , during a shocking 7-0 beatdown of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night at Ball Arena.

One guy who’s surely taking notice is Gandler, who is already preparing to negotiate the pending free agent’s next contract as July 13 creeps closer. The good news for Avs fans, Gandler said Saturday night while vacationing in Hollywood, Fla., is that Nichushkin isn’t thinking that far ahead yet.

He only wants to raise the Stanley Cup, and he’s helped put Colorado in excellent position to do so, with a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final.

“He’s oblivious to this, believe me,” Gandler said, laughing, when asked how much money Nichushkin is making for himself. “If he cared, he wouldn’t be playing so well. He’s oblivious to the whole thing. He’s just enjoying himself.”

Gandler could be looking at a treasure chest, however, whether it’s from the Avalanche or another team.

The Athletic queried three NHL agents Saturday night, one NHL assistant GM and one NHL coach, who fancies himself a wannabe GM, to try to determine what Nichushkin, who’s only 27, could earn with his two-year, $2.5 million-a-year contract set to expire.

The answers were consistent.

One power agent said $5 million. Another said $4 million to $5.5 million. Another said more than $6 million, easy.

The assistant GM said, “The two guys I would think of off the top of my head are Bryan Rust and Zach Hyman. Two complementary wingers that can play with your best players. Both those guys have longer track records of offensive production, so that could be a difference. (Nichushkin) is the youngest of the three players, though.”

Rust, 30, is beginning a new six-year, $30.75 million deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins at a $5.125 million cap hit. Hyman, 30, is entering Year 2 of a seven-year, $38.5 million deal ($5.5 million cap hit) with the Edmonton Oilers.

The NHL coach guessed “$5 million-plus range.”

“I’m so shocked the way he’s playing,” the coach said. “Like his last year in Dallas, he was so useless. No goals, no penalty minutes. I don’t even know how that’s possible. But now he looks like the next coming of Frank Mahovlich.”

Gandler wouldn’t discuss how much he thinks his client could get from the Avs or another team this offseason.

“It’s not up to us. It’s up to Joe,” Gandler said. “Joe is a very good manager. He’s going to choose who he wants to retain. If he makes a good offer, we’re good with that. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. It’s not a problem. He’s going to get a job, no question.”

There’s no doubt teams would be lining for one of the league’s best defensive forwards, who also has eight goals and 13 points in 16 playoff games after scoring a career-high 25 goals and 52 points in 62 regular-season games.

“He’s a train for us,” Makar said. “He’s such a hard working guy. It shows on the ice. He’s so valuable for us in every single zone, whether it’s picking up speed in the neutral zone and getting that O-zone entry or helping on the D-zone breakout-wise. Obviously, we see his offensive talent that he’s shown lately. He’s the full package. He’s been incredible for us. He’s such a driven human being, and it’s awesome guys like that get rewarded.”

In 2013-14, Nichushkin had a great rookie year for the Dallas Stars, with 14 goals and 34 points in 79 games. But the next year, he had hip surgery and was limited to eight games.

“Hip surgery is six months of rehab and then you have to learn how to play the game again,” Gandler said. “It basically took a whole season away from him. When he comes back, he just wasn’t going anywhere.”

In 2015-16, Nichushkin scored nine goals and 29 points in 79 games. He didn’t like the Stars’ contract offer, Gandler said, so he returned to the KHL to play two years for CSKA Moscow.

“I thought it was a knee-jerk reaction to go to the KHL due to his own shortcomings,” Gandler said. “But then he came back, didn’t have a good season, and then I thought it was a knee-jerk reaction for Dallas to buy him out.”

That’s right: After Nichushkin went an entire 57-game season with no goals and no penalty minutes (an NHL record for a non-goalie), the Stars bought him out of the final year of his contract with $2.95 million left so they could spend on Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry in free agency.

“Not scoring in 57 games made for a difficult time for Val. It feeds on itself. It’s a beast,” Gandler said. “But I don’t know where buying him out came from. It was unexpected.”

Nichushkin signed a one-year, $850,000 deal with the Avs in 2019 because he felt the system would be good for him, and it was. He finished eighth in Selke Trophy voting and scored 13 goals and 27 points in 57 games. He re-signed for two years and continues to pay the Avs back with quality play.

“He’s not doing anything different than he hasn’t done for us for the better part of two seasons at least,” Bednar said. “I mean, I’ve said it before: Big, long, strong, fast, tenacious, hungry, relentless on the puck. Finishing off the chances he gets, he can play with top guys, you can move him up and down the lineup, plays power play, penalty kill.

“I mean, I don’t know what else to say about the guy.”

Cogliano spent part of that miserable 2018-19 season with Nichushkin in Dallas.

“I don’t think he was comfortable there,” Cogliano said. “I think there were different things going on, and honestly, I can’t even describe the type of player Val is. He’s phenomenal. He’s just the guy that drives the play all night. He’s relentless on the forecheck. He’s been scoring, but the details of his game — and, in Dallas, he was always very good defensively — but I just think he got in a rut scoring-wise.

“But since coming here, I don’t think I have seen a level of play from a guy consistently — a 200-foot game offensively, defensively — like I’ve been seeing with Val.”

In Game 1, Nichushkin scored a goal and assisted on Andre Burakovsky’s overtime winner. In Game 2, Nichushkin scored twice. Nichushkin and Mikko Rantanen joined Chris Kunitz, Justin Williams, Mario Lemieux, Rick Tocchet and Ray Bourque as the only NHLers since 1990 to register multiple points in each of the first two games of a Stanley Cup Final. Nichushkin and Burakovsky are two of seven players in the past 17 finals to score a goal in each of the first two contests (Vladimir Tarasenko, Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, Teuvo Teravainen and Justin Abdelkader are the others).

In 12:46 of five-on-five ice time Saturday night, Nichushkin had a ridiculous 100 percent Corsi percentage (on the ice for 13 shot attempts and zero against).

According to Evolving Hockey, Nichushkin had a 58.4 percent expected goal rate in the regular season. He’s nothing if not consistent. In the playoffs, he’s also at 58.4 percent.

Nichushkin provides Selke-caliber defense. He’s elite on the forecheck and at recovering loose pucks. He plays both special teams. And he’s the ultimate facilitator and has scoring to match.

The 10th pick in the 2013 draft is playing like a top-10 pick.

Yeah, Nichushkin is going to get paid this summer. The only question is who’s writing the check.

(Photo: Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today)

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