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UFA Preview: Valeri Nichushkin and Andre Burakovsky

The theme from yesterday continues as we look at a pair of pending UFAs who are currently still playing hockey this season. Today it is Colorado Avalanche forwards Valeri Nichushkin and Andre Burakovsky; would either be a fit for the New Jersey Devils?

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Colorado Avalanche Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Our summer unrestricted free agency series continues today by looking at some upcoming free agents on the other side of the ongoing Stanley Cup Final. Jared looked at two players from the reigning and defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, while today I shift to the Western Conference and the Colorado Avalanche. While a quick look at their CapFriendly page reveals that they have a LOT of players that could become unrestricted free agents, today we look at two forwards who many would class as late bloomers: Valeri Nichushkin and Andrei Burakovsky. Why might the Devils want to add one or both of these players? We take a look at both to answer that question today.

Who is Valeri Nichushkin and What Would He Bring to the Table?

NIchushkin has had an up and down NHL career to this point in time. Originally a draft selection of the Dallas Stars back in 2013, Nichuskin would enter the NHL the season immediately after he was drafted, and he would have a pretty good rookie campaign. The next two seasons were more downs than ups for him, as he would miss all but eight games in 2014-15 due to injury. He returned to play 79 games (the same as his rookie year) in 2015-16, but saw his point total decline rather than increase. Allegedly frustrated with his role in the Dallas organization, Nichushkin signed for two years in the KHL.

He would return to the Stars in 2018-19, as they had retained his rights when he signed overseas. A disappointing North American return (just ten assists in 57 games) would see 2018-19 as Nichushkin’s final season in Dallas, as they would buy him out of the year remaining on the two-year deal he has signed upon his return. As an unrestricted free agent, Nichushkin would sign a one-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche.

Courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com

Nichushkin would begin to rebuild his value and find a role on the Avs team in 2019-20 and the truncated 2021 season, but in this 2021-22 campaign, his totals exploded. His 52 points in 62 games easily eclipsed his previous career high of 34 points from back in his rookie season. His continued consistent point production in these playoffs could be a sign that Nichushkin has finally put everything together at the NHL level.

According to both his player card (courtesy of JFreshHockey) and this article about him from the same source, Nichushkin impacts his team positively at both ends of the ice. Colorado has let him carry the puck into the zone more often than dumping and chasing, which seems to be more suited to Valeri’s game. A forward that has positive impacts on both ends of the ice is always a welcome addition, and while the Devils aren’t a small team, they tend to have a reputation as one, or at least a team that’s easy to play against. Adding a player of Nichushkin’s size and talent would be a big boost towards changing that narrative.

What Type of Contract Will Nichushkin Get and What Should the Devils Do?

Let’s get to the contract projection before we address this elephant in the room with this potential signing. Referring to out usual source of Dobber Hockey, Alexander MacLean projects that Nichushkin will sign for roughly $6 million per season. Now based on his production this season, the number honestly doesn’t look that bad, especially when you consider that Nichushkin’s stat boost comes with his ice time being bumped up this season as well. MacLean does warn in the article, however, that a team signing Nichushkin to anchor their second line could regret it.

I’m a bit wary of signing Valeri myself due to the anticipated number, as well as the number of years he may be looking for. His salary is anticipated to double, and while he scored at a good rate en route to a new career high, there’s no guarantee he ever scores this many points in a season again. Projecting stats based on a career high in a contract year (and on a high scoring team like Colorado) could see any team hamstrung with a high cost contract for a player who is not performing up to that contract. I like the skill set that Nichushkin could bring to the team; I’m just wary of him reverting to his previous production while costing a lot more against the cap.

Now to get to that elephant for a moment; when NIchushkin had his issues with the Dallas Stars, he disagreed with both GM Jim Nill as well as the team’s coach. Dallas’ coach at the time was current New Jersey Devils head coach Lindy Ruff; upon Valeri’s return to the Stars, Ruff was no longer the coach. If any bad blood still exists between the two, or if Nichushkin decides he doesn’t want to try and play in Lindy Ruff system again, the concept of pursuing him from an organizational standpoint becomes moot.

With the past history with Ruff, his projected contract, and his only one year of sustained production (including his KHL time) I think it results in a perfect storm where the Devils should look elsewhere. I like Nichushkin as a player, and I like the idea of what he could bring to the team. I just think the chances of everything working out in the Devils’ favor is too low for the anticipated cost.

Who is Andre Burakovsky and What Would He Bring to the Table?

Moving now to Nichushkin’s Avalanche teammate, Andre Burakovsky is another player who was not initially drafted by the team he plays for now. Devils fans are probably a bit more familiar with this player, as Burakovsky was initially a choice of the Washington Capitals in 2013 that would break into the NHL during the 2014-15 season. Over his first three seasons, Burakovsky was looking like he would develop into another important young piece for the Capitals, but his totals would dip in his fourth year and he would see his ice time reduced in his fifth season with the Caps.

Prior to the 2019-20 season, the Caps dealt him to Colorado for a second and a third round draft pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. The move was both cost conscious for the Caps as well as a chance at a fresh start for Burakovsky, whose points per game had dipped along with his ice time reduction. Upon joining the Avalanche, Burakovsky would see a jump in his production, posting new career highs in goals, assists and points in 2019-20 even with the tail end of that season being removed.

Courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com

Burakovsky would go on to eclipse those now previous career highs during this past season, contributing 61 points in 80 regular season games, as well as 8 points in his 12 playoff appearances. While he’s not known for his defending, Burakovsky could be an affordable, point-producing winger if the Devils were to pursue him.

I think calling him the best finisher in the league (even possibly) is a bit of hyperbole when you consider all of the goal scorers in the NHL currently. What can’t be denied, however, is that Burakovsky is a very good goal scorer:

He may not have the defensive acumen that Nichushkin has to go along with the offense, but if the Devils are looking solely for a boost in terms of scoring, Burakovsky could be an attractive option. While the Devils are not in any form of cap trouble, Burakovsky also shouldn’t break the bank to the point of putting them in said trouble in future seasons, meaning that for his production and price point, he could be a smart pick-up for the Devils or any team looking to improve this offseason.

What Type of Contract Will Burakovsky Get and What Should the Devils Do?

Burakovsky projects to be roughly two million cheaper than his teammate, with his Dobber Hockey projection coming in at approximately $4.1 million per season. I have a gut feeling this number is probably going to be much less than what he actually signs for, considering that he’s coming off of a deal that saw his cap charge come in at $4.9 million per season. If he signs for anything south of $5 million, kudos to the GM that pulls it off, and if that GM winds up being Tom Fitzgerald, I may just give him a one season pass on questioning his coaching hires.

Back to the contract though, I think Burakovsky’s AAV probably comes in at around $6 million per season, as he’s going to look to cash in on the momentum from his previous three campaigns. Even in the 2021 season, while other players missed time or faltered, he produced at a strong rate despite everything going on in the league at the time. While the Dobber projection forecasts Nichushkin to cost more, I don’t think that will be the case.

If the Devils can ensure both the roster flexibility and the salary cap flexibility (read: move Pavel Zacha), I don’t see any downside to offering Burakovsky something like five years at $6million per. Now is that what the player wants? That’s not clear; as players get to unrestricted free agency, they usually are looking to find a balance of competitiveness and payment on the team signing them. Players also tend to look for financial security for when their playing days are behind them, and this could be Burakovsky’s chance to sign a seven or eight year deal that would pay him and take him to the tail end of his career.

If the Devils want Burakovsky and can find an agreeable price point, I don’t think the extra year or two he would desire should be the breaking point. With his scoring rate since moving on from Washington being fairly consistent (as compared to his reputation for being streaky with the Caps) I don’t have the concerns here that I do with Nichushkin. Additionally, if Burakovsky declines during his last couple of seasons, by that time, he will be taking up an even smaller percentage of the team’s salary cap.

Offer five years at $6 million per, and if he asks for more years at that rate, take it. The Devils could use one more solid Top-6 piece up front, and Burakovsky is a better option than trotting out Tomas Tatar, Pavel Zacha or a prospect who may not yet be ready for the responsibility.

Final Thoughts

While forward may be the position the Devils least need to “fix” it still doesn’t hurt to solidify the lineup. Andre Burakovsky and Valeri Nichuskin both have skill sets that could aid the Devils, but based on the past and their point production trends, I think Burakovsky is the better fit and the player the Devils should pursue. Again, he doesn’t have the same defensive impact, but the worry of point production decline for the anticipated salary has me wary of Nichushkin.

What are your thoughts on these two players who might soon be lifting Lord Stanley above their heads? Are you interested in either player being added by the Devils this offseason? Do you have a preference of one player over the other? Would you rather see the Devils look elsewhere altogether? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!