The Colorado Avalanche don’t need a true enforcer, but they could use a big, gritty player who can contribute to scoring now and then.
Before you say it, I know the Colorado Avalanche, like most NHL teams, aren’t going to employ a true enforcer. Yes, enforcers have gone the way of the dodo bird, and it’s probably for the best.
However, teams do employ lower-skilled forwards with gritty tendencies. These players are big and mean, but they can also pot in a few goals. The best of them reach Tom Wilson status — good at scoring and whupping your butt.
It would be nice if Valeri Nichushkin found that balance. However, oddly enough, it’s the skill that’s lacking in his game. He has a lot of talent, and he was drafted to be a skill player. However, that skill level never translated to the NHL, especially in recent years.
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Last season, Nichushkin went 57 games without scoring a goal — the entire number of games he played for the Dallas Stars, to be exact. He’s now added five more games to that tally, bringing his total to 62 games without a goal.
He can have all the skills and talents in the world, but they’re just not translating right now. As a result, he’s seeing his ice time shrink. In the game against Washington, he played just 9:19, the lowest of any Avs player.
Well, besides underutilized skills and talents, Nichushkin has one more underutilized attribute — his size. The 24-year-old forward is 6-foot-4, 210 pounds. He’s not the biggest player on the Avs, but he’s one of the biggest forwards.
And he hasn’t been afraid to use his size to his advantage, not when it comes to the physical play. Last season with the Stars, he recorded 71 big hits — well more than a hit a game.
And last night, during the game against the Capitals, he did this:
He fought one of the Caps’ newest bad boys, Tyler Lewington. It wasn’t Valeri’s idea to fight, and he did get tangled in his jersey before getting hauled down, but he held his own.
Not bad for his first-ever NHL fight. That’s right, Nichushkin has never fought in the NHL. Lewington, by contrast, engaged in his second of the young season when he dropped with Valeri, and he fought a lot in the AHL, too.
I’m sure this isn’t the path Nichushkin would want. However, he’s currently in danger of getting pushed off the team. Even perennial fourth-liner Pierre-Edouard Bellemare has two goals on the season. And everyone’s favorite whipping boy, Tyson Jost, has a goal and an assist.
This situation reminds me of my old favorite, Rene Corbet. He was an absolute scoring fiend in the QMJHL — his final year he earned 148 points. His draft year was a measly 96 points, but it led him to being selected in the first round by the Quebec Nordiques.
He never reached even 30 points in the NHL, though. So, while he didn’t become an enforcer in the model of Scott Parker, he did become the kind of pesky scrapper other teams didn’t enjoy playing against.
There are worse ways to make a living. Nichushkin still has a six-figure salary as a 24-year-old. And he could well return to the KHL after this season.
For this season, though, he could provide some of that grit the Colorado Avalanche is coming to prize again. They need size and grit for teams like the St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights, and San Jose Sharks. Plus, he already has an appropriate nickname — Nuke.
Valeri Nichushkin already has the size. If he provides the grit, he might have an erstwhile spot on the team.