There was little question when the Dallas Stars bought out the final year of Valeri Nichushkin’s contract in late June that the Russian winger would end up somewhere on an NHL roster. We now know that spot is in Colorado with the Avalanche.
Nichushkin was a 2013 first-round pick for the Stars while he was under contract with Dynamo Moscow. That contract was conditionally terminated, allowing Val to sign with the Stars, but only if he played with the NHL club. Nichushkin made his debut with the Stars as an 18-year-old rookie on October 3, 2013.
There were multiple positive signs for the young Russian his rookie year. He finished the year with 14 goals and 20 assists (ed. note: this would have been the 4th-highest forward point total on the 2018-19 team), ultimately ending up twelfth in Calder Trophy voting. After watching a handful of games, Jaromir Jagr went so far as to envision Val having the potential to be the “best in the world one day”.
A hip injury sidelined Nichushkin for most of the 2014-2015 season, but he returned the following year with a solid, but not spectacular nine-goal, 20-assist effort. Due to a variety of issues, including an interview with a Russian outlet that made Nichushkin sound a bit disgruntled, Nichushkin returned to Russia at the conclusion of his entry level deal in 2016.
Val signed a two year deal with CSKA Moscow, and played a solid supporting role for the KHL powerhouse. Dallas maintained his NHL rights, and remained optimistic enough about his play to put him on the protected list for the Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft.
Nichushkin returned to the Stars for the 2018-2019 season, signing a two-year deal with a cap hit of just under $3 million dollars. During the season, Val never found a niche within the lineup, and as the season progressed, his overall solid play became eclipsed by an ongoing “zero goals scored” storyline. Needing cap space, the Stars bought out the second year of Nichushkin’s deal on June 30, 2019.
It’s difficult to think that Nichushkin will leave Dallas as anything other than another first round draft pick bust in the eyes of many fans, right or wrong. I tend to view Nichushkin’s 2018-2019 season as a mismatch of talent, systems, and circumstances. Val is a defensively responsible power possession winger who needs to be surrounded by scorers. There is a place for that skill set, but not in Dallas.
That said, there are opportunities for Nichushkin in Colorado. Specifically, the Avalanche’s second line is a work in progress. Most likely, the heart of the line is newly acquired Nazem Kadri at center with Andre Burakovsky on the left side. Tyson Jost and Joonas Donskoi are options for the right side, but with Kadri and Burakovsky as shooters, Nichushkin’s playmaking and defensive responsibility could easily mesh into a respectable second line. Val will also likely find himself a role on the Avalanche penalty kill.
With Mikko Rantanen still unsigned, the addition of Nichushkin is also an insurance policy, adding additional depth for the Avalanche at right wing.
One of the focal points over the last month has been what will happen with 2014 first-round draft pick Julius Honka. Once training camp starts, 2015 first-round draft pick Denis Gurianov will be in the spotlight, with optimists seeing Gurianov as an incoming impact player. Wasted draft picks have been a sore spot for Stars fans, and Nichushkin was the first of the Jim Nill era of first-rounders to be cut loose. If Val finds his game from his rookie year after he arrives in Colorado, it would be another tough pill to swallow for those already knee-deep in discussions about the last decade of Stars picks in the first round. (Ed. note: at least they have Miro Heiskanen.)