How the Avalanche will (or won’t) replace forward Valeri Nichushkin
Montréal — The Colorado Avalanche lost Artturi Lehkonen to a neck injury just over two months ago. When asked how the club replaces a player like Lehkonen, coach Jared Bednar responded succinctly.
“You don’t,” he replied on November 11.
Valeri Nichushkin entered the NHL/NHLPA Players Assistance Program on Monday, leaving the Avs without another key player. He will be away from the team for an indeterminate period of time.
Bednar’s response when asked how the team will replace Nichushkin following a 4-3 loss in Montreal?
Colorado has been able to remain near the top of the NHL standings without Lehkonen. Nichushkin and Lehkonen are similar players, but this absence might prove more difficult for the Avs to overcome … and it could have a significant impact when the important games begin in April.
“He’s a fantastic player, kind of a ‘one of one’ player,” Avs defenseman Devon Toews said. “Nobody else like him.”
Nichushkin has been productive for the Avalanche before, particularly during the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. But this version of Nichushkin has been at another level.
Lehkonen last finished an Avs game on Nov. 7, two nights before he was injured in a scary collision with the end boards against Seattle. Nichushkin has scored 21 goals since — the third-most in the NHL in that span.
Nichushkin was on pace for 40-plus goals and 80-plus points before leaving the team. That’s largely due to a dominant two-month stretch that saw him help ignite one of the best lines in the NHL before sliding back to the second line to give the Avs a deeper look.
There are only 11 players who have more goals than Nichushkin, with NHL Edge crediting Nichushkin with 16 goals in the high-danger area this season. The list of players who have 16 or more high-danger area goals includes Auston Matthews (16), Zach Hyman (21) and Sam Reinhart (24).
Nichushkin also ranks fourth in the league among forwards in terms of average time on ice per game, trailing just Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Nikita Kucherov. He has played extensively in all three phases, averaging four minutes per game on the power play as the net-front guy on PP1 and two minutes per game on the penalty kill.
He’s played 80:36 on a penalty kill that has been ranked in the top ten all season (albeit it dropped to 10th following two extra-man goals against the Canadiens on Monday night at Bell Centre).
“He’s scored 20 goals. “That will never be easy to replace,” Toews stated. “We will undoubtedly miss him. He is an all-star in this league. He’s capable of scoring 25 or more points if necessary. That’s a lot of minutes that other players will have to fill.
“Guys will have to step up. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past few years.
The first place to look for assistance could be Lehkonen. He’s been skating with the team, and Bednar suggested he could be available later in the road trip, which began Tuesday night in Ottawa and includes stops in Boston and Philadelphia.
Lehkonen (and Miles Wood) returning will revive some of the club’s depth up front. Lehkonen was on PP1 ahead of Nichushkin at the start of the year, but has never produced at the level Nichushkin did the past two months. Getting Bo Byram back on the blue line will also help the team’s ability to generate offense.
There is also the possibility of external help. The NHL trade deadline is less than seven weeks away.
This is where Nichushkin’s absence could be an issue, beyond his on-ice impact. The Avs already had a second-line problem. But there was an obvious in-house solution: Lehkonen returns and re-joins a line with Nichushkin and Ryan Johansen. They were a strong line in limited minutes together before Lehkonen’s injury and before Bednar needed to tinker to help other lines.
Whether or not Johansen is the No. 2 center this club can count on in the postseason remains a question. Getting those players together for a chunk of games before the trade deadline could help the Avs’ decision-makers answer that question.
Johansen has a strong playoff track record. Maybe those three players would click again, and the Avs could decide that No. 2 center isn’t as big of a priority as others at the deadline.
But the Avs do not know when they’ll see Johansen, Lehkonen and Nichushkin together again. Samuel Girard was away from the team for about a month and missed nearly six weeks of game action after he entered the players assistance program earlier this season, but there is no defined timeline. It could be shorter for Nichushkin, or longer, which would run up against the deadline or even go past it.
This is the second time in just eight months that the Avs have been uncertain about Nichushkin’s availability. His latest absence occurred in the middle of a first-round series against the Seattle Kraken, which the Avs eventually lost.
If he can return as an outstanding 200-foot player, the Avs will remain a major Stanley Cup contender.
“We try to treat it as a big family,” Bednar said following the game Monday night. “You would help your family if they had to go through something like that. We are the same manner as a team.
“I wish that hadn’t been an issue for us a number of times, but that’s how things are. We want him to feel good about himself and his situation before he returns, so he can help our team and get back to doing what he enjoys.