May 30th, 2024

The value of Valeri Nichushkin on display for Avs since his return from player assistance program

By Pat Graham, The Associated Press on May 3, 2024.

DENVER (AP) – Valeri Nichushkin is lifting the Colorado Avalanche after taking the time to help himself.

The hard-charging, fast-moving Russian forward was gone for nearly two months of the regular season as he received care from the NHLPA/NHL Player Assistance Program for issues that were not disclosed. This was on the heels of missing the final five games of a playoff loss last season for what the team explained as personal reasons.

When he is on the ice, Nichushkin is a goal-scoring force. Especially come playoff time, where he just had seven over five games in a first-round series win against the Winnipeg Jets. In Colorado’s 2022 Stanley Cup title run, he was third on the team with nine goals.

“Val is a beast,” said new Colorado addition Casey Mittelstadt, whose team will face either Dallas or Vegas in the second round. “An absolute beast.”

This version in particular, the one that’s “doing really well,” from a mental health standpoint, coach Jared Bednar said.

Nichushkin was unavailable to the team from Jan. 13 to Mar. 7. The 29-year-old became the second Avalanche player to enter the program this season, following defenceman Samuel Girard, who said in November that anxiety and depression led to alcohol abuse. Girard returned in mid-December.

Since his return, Nichushkin has been hard to stop, no matter what line he’s on. Lately, he’s been paired with Nathan MacKinnon, who’s in the running for the Hart Trophy, and Mikko Rantanen.

Nichushkin’s seven goals in the first round were tied for the most in a playoff series in franchise history. He joins the company of Rantanen (2023 first round), Hall of Famer Joe Sakic (1996 conference quarterfinals) and Réal Cloutier (1982 division finals).

“He’s doing great. He really is,” Bednar said of Nichushkin. “You want guys to be in good mental health and taking care of themselves, and he’s doing that.

“To be fair, he was playing really well when he wasn’t in great mental health. But I just think for long-term sustainability, you want your guys feeling great and at ease away from the rink. You want them to be having fun when they’re coming to the rink and they’ll be more productive. He’s certainly doing that.”

One thing Nichushkin doesn’t do much of is talk. He avoids interviews as much as he can, preferring to let his play do his speaking.

“He’s playing great. It’s huge for everybody – for himself and for us,” forward Andrew Cogliano said. “It’s good to see someone that obviously had some struggles and was able to get through it and come out on the other side and play amazing.”

In a first-round playoff series last spring against Seattle, Nichushkin abruptly left the team with only the explanation that it was for personal reasons. His absence started after officers responded to a crisis call at the Four Seasons Hotel in Seattle before Game 3. A 28-year-old woman was in an ambulance when officers arrived, and medics were told to speak with an Avalanche team physician to gather more details.

The report, obtained at the time from the Seattle Police Department by The Associated Press, said the Avalanche physician told officers that team employees found the woman when they were checking on Nichushkin. The physician told officers the woman appeared to be heavily intoxicated, too intoxicated to have left the hotel “in a ride share or cab service,” and requested EMS assistance.

Before the season, Nichushkin brushed aside questions about the situation, saying only, “I know you guys want to find something there but it’s nothing really interesting. I think we should close it.”

Despite playing in just 54 games, he finished with a career-high 28 goals in the regular season. He also recorded his first career hat trick in Game 4 against the Jets, with cap after cap hitting the ice at Ball Arena.

“We all know what a great player he is,” said teammate Artturi Lehkonen, who scored a goal in all five games of the Winnipeg series. “It’s hard to stop the big man.”

At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Nichushkin is a punishing presence who also generates plenty of speed. He’s hard to move, too, when he camps out in front of the net. He has three power-play goals, which is tied for the most in the playoffs this season.

“Rock solid in almost every area of the game,” Bednar said. “Players like that, you can’t even describe what they bring to the team.”

___

AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl

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