The Avs made a play for erstwhile top-10 draft pick Valeri Nichushkin this week in a baffling move that’s gotten mostly negative reviews so far. There doesn’t appear to be a need here or an open role. Maybe that changes when we see who’s ready to go when camp opens but even so it’s a very marginal solution to a problem that probably doesn’t exist. That said, it’s always more fun to figure out who a player actually is before truly despising him so let’s see if there’s anything worth getting excited about.
Nichushkin was drafted 10th overall in 2013, signed with Dallas and played immediately as an 18 year old. He was 12th in Calder voting after a 14 goal/20 assist campaign, which turns out to be his best offensive season to date. The next season he was broken, then the final year of his ELC found him with 9G/20A and contract demands Dallas was unwilling to fulfill. After a couple of decent KHL seasons he returned to the Stars on a 2-year, $5.9M deal which was bought out earlier this summer.
The Stars bought him out because he was ineffective and expensive. The Avs got him cheap, monetarily at least, at $850k and one-way. The ineffective part remains to be seen. It’s fair to ignore most of what happened before this past season. His ELC days are far in the past and the KHL doesn’t translate to the NHL realiably. I’m going to look into this past season to see what he accomplished beyond setting up 10 assists in 57 games. This will have some team effects and the whims of Coach Montgomery built in but given that the Avs and Stars were fairly similar in the same division it will give insights.
Starting off with usage, Nichushkin played nearly 95% of his minutes at 5v5. He had less than 20 minutes on the power play and less than 17 on PK and no points in either of those situations. His 11:03 TOI per game at 5v5 was 10th of players with more than 200 minutes for Dallas, so solidly on the 4th line.
In general, the Avs and Stars had similar shots against metrics while Colorado was slightly more effective at generating shots, around 7% or so. Comparing against teams is often a fool’s errand but I think we can get a rough idea of where Nuke would fit in with last year’s Avs.
Ten points in a season is pretty rough, especially when 6 of those are secondary assists. Nichushkin’s 4 primary points at 5v5 is on par with Gabriel Bourque and his P1/60 of 0.29 was in line with Blake Comeau’s awful season for the Stars. Overall his P/60 of 0.86 was 14th for Dallas and would have slotted in at 16th on the Avs, as would his 0.503 point per on-ice goal scored rate. Safe to say he’s not going to generate any points.
As far as individual shot generation, Nuke had 9.97 iCF/60 and 0.47 ixGF/60, which was 4th line level (or worse) for Dallas and would have come in at 14th among Avs forwards last year. 18.8 iCF per on-ice CF would rate around 16th for Colorado. You’re getting the point now, he doesn’t generate shots either.
The saving grace for those that have a positive view on this acquisition is Nichushkin’s defensive effects. This is always hard to parse out for the same reasons it’s hard to find solid metrics for defensemen that don’t score much. Yes, it does appear that opponents did not shoot much or well when he was on the ice. Throwing out some random reasons why: he was a 4th liner and other 4th liners are bad too, the grindy Dallas system favored boring low-event play which is borne out by his low xG pace (3.82 per hour) and Corsi pace (108.49). Both of those would have been last/slowest on the Avs this year so this is similar to when inexperienced players get called up to the NHL and are extremely low-event until they become able to deal with NHL play. The conclusion here is not that he’s solid defensively but that he makes everyone on the ice worse, including his teammates.
The picture we’re building here is of a low-skill grinder that adds little offensively. Defensively, Nichushkin has the effect of suppressing total game pace but that didn’t translate to goals against where despite solid shot metrics, the goals against per hour were quite high. Also goals per expected goal against was very high, which tends to indicate a volume of mistakes being made.
Did the Avs have an obvious opening for a slow, mistake-prone grinder that doesn’t score? With Gabe Bourque gone perhaps they did but that’s no reason to fill it. (I also hate to mention this but Bourque has not signed anywhere yet so is he really gone?) Here’s a snapshot of the Avalanche/Eagles forward complement as of today:
33 players from the top NHL line all the way to guys on AHL/ECHL 2-way contracts, looking for playing time in 24 spots. There are questions about Mikko remaining unsigned, Colin Wilson’s injury status and perhaps some others we’re not aware of but that’s a solidly filled group of players for the NHL and AHL levels. Too solid perhaps.
The question that I and many others are asking is how do players like Vlad Kamenev, Martin Kaut and Shane Bowers, not to mention AJ Greer, Logan O’Connor, Nick Henry, Ty Lewis, Igor Shvyrev, etc., get a crack at playing in the NHL with all this garbage in front of them? A couple of busts in their mid-20’s and aging grinders is fine for any team but why would you put a flock of them in front of your top prospects when graduating those top prospects has been an utter failure for over a decade?
I love the thought of competition for roster spots but the reality is that returning pro prospects do not have the opportunity to graduate in camp. Colorado’s roster is set before skates hit the ice and the best they can do is shuffle a spot or two in the callup order. The Avs player personnel department has had a very black and white view of NHL vs AHL players for years and allowances are not made to give much opportunity to younger talent. It all comes down to injury luck opening the door a crack but even so the older players are always put back in the lineup regardless of how well a younger player shows during a callup. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and very frustrating for fans to see Avs management and coaching staff complain about lack of depth after they overbuy on marginal players with NHL experience every summer.
Valeri Nichushkin is something the Avs didn’t need and in all likelihood will hurt them in the long run. He has at the very least locked up the 13th forward spot for the entire season. Every game he dresses for is a missed opportunity for someone with a future in the organization and the NHL. The effects will trickle down because taking a spot also means someone that would have been able to improve by playing better competition on the Eagles roster will be out of sight and out of mind in the ECHL. At the end of the year Colorado’s depth will once again be questioned and the usual shrug will be the reply.