Avalanche teammates welcome Valeri Nichushkin back “with open arms”

Valeri Nichushkin’s absence from the final five games of last season became a dominant storyline as the Avalanche’s title defense fizzled with a first-round loss to the Seattle Kraken.

There are other key players who won’t be on the ice Thursday when Colorado officially opens training camp to start the 2023-24 season, but Nichushkin is expected to participate. His coach and teammates expressed support at Wednesday’s media day for a player who had been a key component of the club’s Stanley Cup run two years prior.

“(We welcomed him back) with open arms,” Avs center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We love Val. I think we just know he’s going to be here for us. He’s such an amazing player. He’s a good person at the end of the day and a great guy. We all love him.”

Nichushkin left Avs the day of Game 3 during their opening-round series with the Seattle Kraken, for what the team termed “personal reasons.” An intoxicated woman was found in Nichushkin’s hotel room that same day, and a team doctor called for an ambulance to take her to the hospital, according to a Seattle police report.

The team never acknowledged the report, nor did the Avs ever say Nichushkin was punished for what transpired. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said during the 2023 Stanley Cup Final that the league was satisfied with how the situation was handled and Nichushkin was not under investigation.

Avs coach Jared Bednar said he met with Nichushkin early in the offseason and spoke with him again recently. Nichushkin has been on the ice with teammates during pre-camp captain’s skates as well.

“I have a lot of faith in Val and who he is as a player and as a person,” Bednar said. “He’s a hungry player. He wants to come back in and make a huge impact like we know he can. I think he’s had a really good offseason with training. He’s excited to be back. We’re certainly excited to have him back. He missed a lot of time last year with some injuries and faced some adversity. He’s a big part of our team.”

Injuries were a consistent theme for the Avalanche last season, and Nichushkin’s absence was a critical blow in a seven-game series loss to the Kraken.

While the Avs have bolstered their forward depth in the offseason, Nichushkin returning to form with no lingering issues from the incident in Seattle would be a boon for a franchise with clear Cup-or-bust aspirations.

“What happened, happened,” Avs defenseman Cale Makar said. “It’s a tough circumstance, obviously. You have a group of guys going into the playoffs, a super tight-knit group, and then something like that happens, and everybody just kind of … all their minds go astray. And you don’t really feel like you’re kind of all together at that point.

“So to have him back and to have him being here and seeing how committed he’s been since being back, it’s awesome. I think we’ve all turned the page on that, kind of. And we’re excited to see him back out there in full force.”

While Nichushkin is back, a few other key players are not at 100 percent at the season’s onset. Makar, who was dealing with various ailments at the end of last season, will not be on the ice Thursday, but he hopes to be skating by the weekend and back to full participation sometime next week.

Goaltender Pavel Francouz (lower body) will also not be on the ice. Defenseman Josh Manson and forward Andrew Cogliano will be, but both are not fully healthy yet. Manson has a lingering lower-body issue, while Cogliano will likely skip the exhibition games with the start of the regular season targeted for his full return. Jean-Luc Foudy is a promising young player who could compete for one of the open forward spots, but he’s also not ready for the start of camp.

The biggest name who won’t be on the ice in the near future is captain Gabriel Landeskog. He is expected to miss a second consecutive regular season because of a knee injury and subsequent surgeries.

There is a different vibe for Landeskog, given that there won’t be a season of uncertain updates and shifting timelines ahead. He is not skating now, but has a six-month checkup from his latest procedure in November.

“I think it makes it easier on everybody – myself, my teammates, fans, everybody knows what to expect,” Landeskog said. “It’s a big surgery, so it’s going to take time.

“I definitely see the path (back). No doubt. I feel really good about where I’m at, and I’m excited for what’s next.”

Getting the other key players healthy, while integrating several new additions like forwards Ryan Johansen, Ross Colton, Miles Wood, Tomas Tatar and Jonathan Drouin, will be storylines during camp. Whether or not Nichushkin’s return is seamless will be as well.

One area where no clarity is needed is expectations. With arguably the best core of star players in the NHL, a retooled roster and a longer offseason to heal, the Avalanche is clearly among the inner-circle of top Stanley Cup contenders.

“I think we’re all very motivated this year to kind of get our standards back to where we need to be to win. You have to be pretty near perfect to get the job done,” MacKinnon said. “Like everyone has said, we have tons of good depth and our top nine is really, really good right now. I’m excited to see how it shakes out.”

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