What should Peter Chiarelli do with Nikita Nikitin?

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Nikita Nikitin was a veteran defenceman brought in last summer to act as a bridge player, taking on tough minutes while the Edmonton Oilers’ young blue line prospects rounded into form.

His first year was a debacle, featuring injuries, questions about conditioning and plenty of poor play. Under Craig MacTavish, the Oilers appeared set to give him a do-over. Will new G.M. Peter Chiarelli feel the same way?

The Options

Peter Chiarelli

Because Nikitin is under contract, Edmonton has only three options:

  • Keep him for the final year of his deal.
  • Trade him to another team, possibly retaining salary in the process.
  • Buy him out of the last season of his contract.

Before making a decision, the team will want to have a firm read on Nikitin’s value. The defenceman plays in all situations; how has he fared over his NHL career?

Nikitin’s Value

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The first item to get out of the way is the power play. Nikitin ended up a power play quarterback in Edmonton essentially because the team had extremely limited options and he has a cannon from the point. There’s little evidence to suggest he’s any good at the discipline; of the 118 NHL defencemen to have played at least 250 minutes on the power play since 2010-11 Nikitin ranks 101st in points per hour (2.67). He’s in the range of a Trevor Daley or Jason Demers; serviceable if there aren’t other options but not a guy who plays minutes on a team with legitimate weapons.

Next is the penalty kill. There is some evidence to suggest that Nikitin has value here. Of the 165 defencemen to play at least 250 minutes shorthanded since 2010, Nikitin ranks 10th overall in unblocked shot attempts/hour. To put that in context, the defencemen we’re looking at might be on the ice for anything from 60 to 90 unblocked shot attempts per hour while shorthanded; with Nikitin on the ice the number is just 64, despite the fact that he’s played for largely middling penalty kills. The picture isn’t quite so rosy in terms of goals against, but even there Nikitin is firmly in the middle of the pack among NHL defencemen. He was above average in both categories this season in Edmonton; this is a role he’s useful in.

That leaves the biggest category, even-strength.

First, the good points. Nikitin is a pretty good point producer historically; he has scored 0.74 points/hour at evens over his career, which is the same rate as players like Ryan Suter and Andrei Markov. He’s big (6’4”, 217 pounds), and though not overly physical he’s effective as a crease-clearer.

However, he has his issues as well. He has a nasty tendency toward glaringly ugly gaffes – giving the puck away or blowing a tire at the worst possible moment. He has somewhat limited mobility and tends to play a conservative game as a result, at times backing off the blue line rather than forcing the issue there. Those issues also mean that when he gets beat he often has trouble recovering; he looks like a pylon more than most defenceman because he gets caught out of the play.

His numbers were better than I expected, however. His on-ice shot totals were below the team average, in large part due to a disastrous stint with Justin Schultz, and against that we have to weigh relatively soft zone starts and middling quality of competition; in the aggregate it’s not good but it’s also not the tire fire I was expecting. Then I looked at David Staples’ individual contributions to scoring chances count and found something interesting – in terms of plus/minus, Staples has Nikitin as above average, but it’s because of his work on the offensive side of the game. Defensively, no regular defenceman made more mistakes/minute on scoring chances against.

In a bad year, Nikitin’s legitimate contributions on the offensive side of the puck were probably underrated because he was so bad defensively. On balance, I’d be comfortable with him as a third-pairing defenceman at even-strength and a regular penalty killer.

Nikitin’s Value and the Oilers’ Options

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The big problem with Nikitin is that if he’s a third-pairing even-strength defenceman/top-unit penalty-killer he should be carrying a modest salary. Instead, he makes $4.5 million per season. What should the Oilers do?

There’s an argument to keep him, to burn through the final year of his contract and just get it over with. In this scenario he might even be moveable at the trade deadline; teams are always looking for depth pieces come late February and if the Oilers retained salary they might fetch a low-end draft pick. Alternatively, Edmonton could buy him out, freeing up $3.0 million in cap space this year but taking up $1.5 million in cap space next season.

The question really comes down to how close the Oilers are going to be to the salary cap. Assuming that Edmonton can replace those minutes with a $1.5 million free agent, that $3.0 million in cap space the team is saving shrinks down to $1.5 million. If Chiarelli plans to spend that close to the cap, he should absolutely dump Nikitin to make it happen. If he doesn’t, it’s probably worth putting up with Nikitin for 50 more games, adding a low draft pick and wiping the bad contract from the books in one year instead of two.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • billythebullet

    These last few “what to do with…” articles have made me realize our oilers have a log jam for bottom pairing d. MM, Shultz, NN, Ferance all belong on that pair. Can’t keep all 4 unless one goes back to the ahl. I say buyout NN, and trade the rights to shultz. Use said $ and replace with two of, petry, sekera, franson, erhoff.

  • Dwayne Roloson 35

    JW,

    I thought for guys under 35 the buyout was 1/3rd the remaining value over twice the remaining years, meaning Nikitins buyout would only be 750k for the next two years. Am I just dreaming?

  • Everyone on this team made glaringly bad giveaways. I thought Nikitin wasn’t too bad when he wasn’t injured and I think he needs to stay out of the lineup unless he is 100% healthy. If he had a bad back, it is going to limit what he could do and if he tries a pass that jolts the injury, it will affect the result of that pass.

    People need to get over contracts, the players are who the players are, the amount they make is thanks to their agents (most times) and the stupid GMs. If nobody knew what players made, only where in the lineup they played, there would be much less complaining about people. If I was offered 2 times my worth, I’d still take it.

  • Simmerdown

    What I’d like to see. If he shows up to training camp in anything less than the best shape of his life, ready to buy-in and play the role he’s asked, dump his ass to the AHL. Send the message “you buy-in or get lost”. However, I know that this is not realistic. Given that I don’t expect them to make the playoffs next year, use him at his talent level and hope he plays well enough to get something in return at the trade deadline.

  • Simmerdown

    Well with all the negative toward him I truly hope comes in to camp in ridiculous shape and proves us all wrong. He’s a big strong mobile dman with a heck of a shot and I hope he can find his game again.

  • Derian Hatcher

    This is what Ron Hextall said about the Oilers a year ago:

    “You build from drafting well. It’s not the — I don’t know if you want to call it the easier model or not — but when you’re really, really bad and you draft high, it’s a little bit easier to build a top team. I think it’s what everyone admires about the Flyers, that they’re always trying to get better, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

    That’s right Ron and we have ONE MORE high draft pick – in fact it’s number one over all and you may have heard of the name CONNOR MCDAVID??? – Well he will be an Oiler next season. So let’s make a deal.

    Since you are a very smart GM, why don’t you hire the SMARTEST COACH IN THE WORLD (we heard you have interviewed him) and you and DALLAS can have Nikitin FOR FREE! He will do really well under Eakins SWARM – in fact he excelled here in Edmonton!

    You’re Welcome!

  • A good assessment JW. A lot depends on Chiarelli’s assessment of whether we can acquire enough quality D men over the summer to enable the team to buy out Nikitin and where we stand against the cap. I suspect it is likely best to add what we can to the blue line, hold our noses and pay Nikitin’s final year. Along with finding a legit Number One Goalie, fixing the blue line is or top priority to make this team competitive.

  • Kevwan

    I would love it if he would just go away but I wouldn’t buy him out.

    Chiarelli will have better grip on the rosters strengths and weaknesses next summer (2016). It would be better to have no cap penalty then. This years pain for next years gain.

    Edit – Really enjoying these “what to do with” pieces Willis – good job

    • Oilergasm

      The only problem is this team has 3 absolute boat anchors on D. With Nikitin/Ference/Schultz that’s a full 1/2 of the D occupied with AHL defenseman. Couple that with the plan of playing Klefbom/Marincin next year. It’s not acceptable to run another year of horrendous piss poor defence. So 2 out of those 3 need to go. At minimum 1 but if we truly cared about winning 2 would be gone. I think an arguement can be made to keep 1 out of the other 3. I’m of the mind that as long as 2 are out the door and replaced with capable Vet 2nd pairing Dmen.. then I will know they are serious about winning games.

      • Kevwan

        Agree the Oilers need to improve the D.

        And if Nikitin shows up at camp out of shape and/or doesn’t show real improvement in his play then give him a ticket to Bakerfield. That’s the worse case scenario. By my calculation the difference to the cap between buying him out and AHLing him is minus 550K next year and plus 1.5 mil in 2016-17. Those numbers don’t include a replacement.

        The team is not realistically a Cup contender in 15-16. I fully expect them to be one in 16-17. I’d want the extra cap room then.

  • knee deep in it

    Best case is to try to find a trade even if we have to eat 50%. We are not a cap team this year but may be next year.

    If we buy him out, we have a cap penalty that extends into next year.

  • Ar_C

    Small steps first Chia. Remove Niki from the equation,get a number 1 goalie,then you got 10 more wins . Add McDavid and the offensive depth he gives us,that’s another 5 wins

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Thanks for clearing up the AHL non option guys. They sure closed that loophole.

    Just more evidence MacTavish was unqualified from the beginning.

  • Oilfaninvan

    Respectfully, I can’t think of a single reason to keep him on this club. He hobbles around on the ice and adds nothing to this team. If you really want to address the blue line on this team, it’s definitely addition by subtraction in this case.

  • S cottV

    I am sure PC will meet with him, to see where his head is at.

    Is he hungry for a new contract?

    How does he feel about the changes in the organization, where for the first time – perhaps he sees light at the end of the Oiler tunnel?

    No question – over rated and I sure as hell wish that Petry was still around, but – maybe best to see what he’s got if the head is right.

    Oiler culture – in particular when Eakins was around, is about as hard on d men, as it is on goaltenders. Dubnyk lost his mind, Smid couldn’t handle it, Belov got as far away as possible, Petry either said something or just lost faith and maybe Nikitin just hasn’t taken the gong show seriously.