I don’t know about you, but I found myself fixated on Nikita Nikitin as he lurched around the ice shift after shift for the Edmonton Oilers on the way to a 4-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets at Rexall Place Monday. I was half-expecting a leg or an arm to fall off. Thankfully, no.
Whether Nikitin was throwing a pizza up the middle of the ice by way of a backhand pass or clunking around like a dump truck in a gravel pit with a broken axle, barely managing to keep his legs under him as yet another Winnipeg forward darted by, I couldn’t take my gaze off him, even as my eyeballs started to ache.
I found myself trying to recall if I’d ever seen a more awkward, painful-to-watch performance by an Oiler defenseman. For all the years I’ve followed the team, I couldn’t think of one. I don’t recall Gord Mark, a lumbering farm boy who made it to the NHL on sheer determination and by my measuring stick (bless his big heart), being as bad. I can’t even put Steve Smith’s bank-shot off Grant Fuhr in that category for stench from start to finish of a game. That was a really good defenseman having a terrible moment.
No, I don’t remember a single 60-minute performance as bad as the one delivered Monday by Nikitin, signed and kept by GM Craig MacTavish in the same season Jeff Petry was sent packing. Perhaps my perception of Nikitin’s performance Monday is tainted by the bigger picture, which has taken ugly well beyond the misadventures of any single game.
THE TWITTER TAKE
Nikitin, simply put, was brutal against the Jets. Compounding matters, the sloth-like blueliner was forced into playing more minutes (25:47), including one shift that lasted 3:29, by an injury to captain Andrew Ference.
I don’t see what management and coaches see in Nikitin. He played 21:03 ES while Fayne played 14:19 ES and Marincin 12:48. #Oilers
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) March 24, 2015
Still trying to wrap my head around the fact Oilers mgmt. chose Nikitin over Petry.
This is going to take awhile.
— David Staples (@dstaples) March 24, 2015
— Derek Van Diest (@SUNdvandiest) March 24, 2015
Nikita Nikitin just spent 25:47 against the Jets looking like Grant Ledyard on Todd Marchant’s OT winning goal against Dallas in 1997.
— Robin Brownlee (@Robin_Brownlee) March 24, 2015
WHAT ARE WE MISSING?
Nikitin is in a no-win situation. Being grossly overpaid at $4.5 million a season on a two-year deal isn’t his fault. MacTavish decided spending that much money was a good idea. Nikitin took it. So would you. So would I. That’s a given. What is Nikitin’s fault is he didn’t show up to collect his money in shape and that he’s been mostly terrible when he’s managed to actually stay in the line-up.
The most troubling issue with Nikitin, of course, is MacTavish’s declaration that he sees the plodding Russian as a top-four defenseman, which he has proven beyond any reasonable doubt he is not at this stage of his career. That astounding assessment, as has been discussed at length, represents a total disconnect from what anybody with functioning eyes can see.
MacTavish is either the worst judge of ability on the entire planet or he’s showing the same stubborn unwillingness to admit a glaring mistake – like the hiring of Dallas Eakins — we’ve seen from him before. Either way, if Nikitin is anything resembling a regular top-four option with the Oilers next season, the Oilers will remain face down at the bottom of the standings.
Given all the holes on the back end – the group MacTavish is “comfortable” with — and that it would be a mistake to rush Oscar Klefbom into minutes he’s not ready for and to force-feed Darnell Nurse into the line-up before he’s ready, burying Nikitin rather than buying him out (I think he should) might be the best option.
At the very least, MacTavish has to admit Nikitin isn’t what he thought he was and find a warm body or two during the off-season that bumps him into the third pairing or, better yet, a seat in the press box as the seventh man.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- Talk about the merits or lack of same in trading Taylor Hall to address other needs with Edmonton’s roster popped up again last night after Sportsnet analyst Corey Hirsch opined that Hall isn’t “developing.”
I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I don’t think anybody on the roster of a team as bad as the Oilers should be untouchable because that scenario depends entirely on the return, but Hall trade talk based on Hirsch’s arms-length assessment while the team staggers toward the end of another putrid season is nothing but noise.
- Jordan Eberle’s tear in recent weeks has him sitting at 20-38-58 in 72 games, which is impressive given how he mightily struggled out of the gate this season. Eberle, discussed as trade bait at great length before he shook off some bumps and bruises and got going, has scored 5-12-17 in his last 12 games. The five goals have come on 26 shots. Eberle is shooting at 12 per cent on the season.
- The Oilers will mark Fan Appreciation Night against the Dallas Stars Friday. The question is how? The Oilers have managed just 12 wins in 36 games at Rexall Place this season and have won just 68 of 183 home dates since the start of 2010-11. A refund might be a start, no? Sure, that’ll happen.
- Petry has played more than 20 minutes, including 26:25 against the Los Angeles Kings on March 5, in nine of his 10 games with the Montreal Canadiens since being traded by the Oilers.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.