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The market to sign free agents begins on Wednesday, but we earned a glimpse into it following the NHL Draft. Many of us have not known peace since then as we watched other UFAs get locked up by their respective teams, and Colorado fans have anxiously awaited the status of 27-year-old UFA Valeri Nichushkin. Discussions were reportedly positive throughout, but with Tuesday bringing about the deadline to sign them for eight years, the urgency to learn of Nichushkin’s future was amped up.
We learned that Nicolas Aube-Kubel will not receive a qualifying offer and becomes a UFA while Artturi Lehkonen did receive a QO. Andre Burakovsky’s agent expects him to head to market. Nazem Kadri’s price tag is likely too high. The need for solutions to the Avs forward group left us sweating a little bit.
The era of newly-promoted GM Chris MacFarland is stamped with a huge contract, and answers came.
Nichushkin has signed an 8-year, $49M contract. The 6.125M AAV makes him the fourth-highest paid forward on the team. Also included in his contract is a No-Move Clause for Years 1-3 and a 12-Team Limited No-Trade clause for Years 4-8.
Initial reactions varied. It wasn’t an utter shock to the masses, but many expected a lower term and a comparable AAV in the 5-6 million range. The length paired with the NMC/NTC’s does reveal a player who saw the value in sticking within a system that helped him to thrive and an organization that shared in that vision.
He rose through the ranks as a former offseason buyout placed on unconditional waivers who carved out a top-line role for himself through 3 seasons with the Avalanche. Nichushkin set career-highs with 25 goals and 52 points this past season. Joe Sakic talked about Nichushkin as a priority to re-sign in the regular season, and it was through a tremendous post-season his value continued to climb. He scored 15 points in 20 playoff games – 4 goals which came about in the Stanley Cup Final.
He came to Colorado as something of a reclamation project, but the Avs saw his potential. He has always been a skilled defensive player, tenacious on the forecheck even in Dallas. It was his offensive offerings that left something to be desired and the pace within the Avs system allowed him room to grow. His size and speed coupled with his relentless pursuit of the puck granted him opportunities in the offensive zone to drive play and force chances. Playing on a top line alongside Nathan MacKinnon at points, Nichushkin demonstrated he could hang with the best of them and solidified a top 6 role in his future.
In addition to his rise offensively, he proved to be a great teammate. His work ethic is well-documented, with several stories emerging for the season that placed him in the weight room, working out following games when most arena staff has already left.
Jared Bednar talked about his evolution as a player at the end of the year.
“He’s taken off where he is. As far as the culture of our team: the system that we play, what we demand of our players, and the defensive side of it is a huge strength of Val’s. He’s obviously a big, long, strong guy that can skate and fits our mold by playing a high pace north game. The battles [and] the races that he can win fits his style. He’s found his place here. He’s moved up our lineup almost every single year. He started on our third line, went to our second, and now he plays our first. It’s where he’s gotten to and the amount he’s been able to contribute – he’s earned every step of [it].”
So the contract that initially seemed rich to some is likely less surprising to those on the inside. Colorado’s front office is privy not only to Nichushkin’s expected market rate as well possible available free agent targets.
This contract leaves $14,910,000 (give or take a few hundred thousand dollars depending on which guys you slot in) in cap space to divvy up a couple of different ways. Lehkonen is expected to receive an offer that will help to round out the top 6, but the Avs will still be in search of a 2C option with Kadri going to market. In the bottom-6, assuming Lukas Sedlak and Ben Meyers fit in, it will be made up of some combination of Andrew Cogliano, J.T. Compher, Alex Newhook, and Logan O’Connor. There is still room for that to change if a depth-signing is possible at the right price as free agency wraps up as well as the option to promote someone like Mikhail Maltsev or Martin Kaut from within.
For the Avs d-corps, there is at least a depth spot to fill for the third pairing if we count on Makar/Toews, and Girard/Byram. Though there were murmurs of retirement, Erik Johnson is expected back. Even still, Kurtis MacDermid will be in there somewhere as the 7th man and Jacob MacDonald did sign a 2-year contract extension. Will Josh Manson head back to Anaheim or is there a chance for him to remain in Colorado? He’d be an addition happily welcomed back.
14.9M to spread over Lehkonen’s extension, a 2C, and a depth D by my count. If the numbers worked out, I’d be open to another depth forward if the market is right. Seeing as many teams let RFAs go without qualifying offers does make the market very interesting this offseason. The bottom line is that Nichushkin’s contract was a necessary step to lock down the top 6, especially in the uncertainty of their 2C – Nazem Kadri’s impact will be greatly missed and hard to replace.
Nichushkin’s contract is similar to Alexandar Georgiev’s contract in that it reveals risk to be an attractive theme this summer. The Colorado Avalanche are 2022 Stanley Cup Champions. They’d really like to do this again sometime and the front office has earned the benefit of the doubt until they’ve lost it. The cap increased from 81.5M to 82.5M for the 2022-23 season. If the cap continues to rise, the impact of Nichushkin’s contract will be felt even less over time.
Eight years is a long time, but I’m reminded of the player who finished out the Stanley Cup Final on a broken foot and has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to this team and his growth here by elevating his play year after year. You know he’ll always play the body and relentlessly chase puck battles. The goals may come about in weird ways, but we’ll always accept them.