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

    • orion

      14-15:

      Phanuef: 5yr @ 7M 1st/2nd comp; .186 EVP/gm; 3.02 EVGA/60

      Nikitin: 1yr @ 4.5M 1st comp; .165 EVP/gm; 2.84 EvGA/60.

      You do realize Nikitin had better results at even with worse goaltenders.

      People Pay Dmen a large amount of salary for PP points on units that are often not better than the league average. Never pay for defence PP Points.

    • Oil4Brains

      If we surrender two contracts that end after one year for a contract that is at 7 mil for 5 years, aren’t we moving backwards? Phaneuf can’t handle the pressure in Toronto, and we’ve seen local guys who have too many distractions nearby (Lupul). Phaneuf should be sent to an american team who has a true #1 defenseman. (LA, Detroit, St Louis, Minnesota, etc)

  • 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?

  • I think it’s always been the same problem here with D men… Putting them in situations well above their heads. Our top D players are other teams bottom pairings. I could see Nikitin doing well here if he was pushed down to bottom pair. We could tolerate the fact he’s well overpaid if he became a good 3rd pair guy rather than an awful top pair guy.

    Outside of that, I’m thinking a trade for retained salary would be a good idea and probably could happen. A buyout strikes me as a very last resort thing as I’d hate to see them lose 1.5 next year too. Plus they have to figure out what to do with Purcell,and a buyout for him also could happen. 3m on the books next year might be hard to swallow.

      • I’m just looking at it from the possibility that they may not be able to trade him. Having him on the team this year wouldn’t be my first choice. But I think if the D were improved across the board it wouldn’t be so bad if he ended up as #6

        • Reg Dunlop

          Ideally he would be a fit as 7th dman. Unfortunately, he would have to compete with Ference, Shultz, Marincin, Aulie and Davidson for the job.

          Just buy him out.

          • Kenny The Rat

            That’s not too bad an idea. What if he wants to play though? I don’t think the team can force him onto LTIR if he isn’t actually hurt. The CBA may have repercussions for that. If they can get away with it (or if he actually gets hurt this summer) that would be the best-case-scenario.

  • 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!

  • The article makes me want to vomit. All the good news we got this past 10 days and you have to bring us back to reality reminding us of that we still have Nikita Nikitan under contract at 4.5 million.

    My cornflakes have officially been pissed in today by this article.
    Where is the Hot Tub time machine when we need it?
    If its me I flush this contract like yesterdays chili. It gives me gas just thinking about it.
    I believe you have to remove the stain of this contract from the team and from the psyche of the Oilers fans. Its just such a toxic relationship and really the underlying numbers cannot justify the 4.5 contract.
    Its time to cut bait and let this moment fade into Oilers history.

  • Kenny The Rat

    Besides puck possession, puck retrival, puck moving, hitting, shooting, and of course scoring, this guy is a good defenceman.

    He has Norris potential ……….on the planet “Stink”!

  • Ar_C

    What was Mac thinking when he signed this guy? Did anyone see him play? He probably just looked at his size on paper, his corsi numbers and decided that was good enough

  • 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.

  • Ready to Win

    The first priority has to be to keep him from ever lacing up for us again. The second priority has to be to get him off the books as fast as possible.

    Because of this I think the only solution is to trade him with retained salary (probably a lot of retained salary since we don’t want a bad contract coming back the other way).

    • 24% body fat

      What happens to both teams if a player is traded with retained salary than the new team buys the player out?

      Is the new team on the hook for the entire buyout or just the share of the contract.

      Does the old team only have liability for the year retained or does it too get split over the buyout years?

      Any one have any clue?

      Best nikitin situation is LTIR for 82 games.

  • freelancer

    Willis, any you guys planning on doing a recap of the Erie vs Sault St Marie series once it’s finished. Had a chance to watch last nights game and it was quite exciting as an Oilers fan. McDavid is McDavid, no need to say anything else there but I was most impressed with Nurse. He was matched most of the night against McDavid, and while Connor still had 4 assists on the night, I thought Darnell did a great job shutting his line down.

  • 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.

  • Oil4Brains

    Same thing with Schultz, if he can upgrade the position for less money than it would cost the team in cap, get rid of him. Given his high salary, that shouldn’t be too tough. By him out, don’t qualify Schultz, and the team now has 6.675mill to spend on some defence in addition to the bit of room they already had.

    I would see if they could get Francois for 3 years at 3.5 mill and Franson for 2 years at around 3 mill. Franson devalued him self a bit this year. And Francois is 34 so I’m not sure if there’s a team that will pay him big money to finish out his years anywhere.

    According to NHL numbers, which I’m not sure if I’m reading right – I miss Cap geek – The oilers have about 4 mill in room right now. But that doesn’t take Fasth, Petry, Perron, Arco, Acton, and Joensuu off the books. So if I’m readin it right, the Oilers should still have a lot of room left. If I’m reading it wrong, they are screwed.

    Can someone smarter than me confirm this?

    If the former then maybe they can grab an Erhoff or Sekera to fill out the right side D, resign Fraser, resign Pitlick, get a goalie, and either Roy or Sodeburg.

    I also wonder if Chirelli would think about reaching out to Petry? 4 mill for a few years to bring Petry back would be pretty great.

    • Oilergasm

      From what i can tell the Oilers have $52,076,000.00 committed to next years cap. 12 Forwards(Hall, RNH, Eberle, Purcell, Pouliot, Yakupov,Gordon, Hendricks, Gazdic, Pakarinen, Klinkhammer and Lander) 4 Defence (Nikitin, Fayne, Ference and Klefbom) and 1 Goalie (Scrivens). Last years cap was $64.3M

      Assume the cap stays the same they would have $12.2M available to round out the roster, 1 F (McDavid, he will get the max rookie deal at about $3.75M), 3 D and 1 G. Leaving about $8.45M to fill 4 roster spots. Fraser, Schultz, Marincin and Aulie are all RFA’s and Roy a UFA.

      They could sign their RFA’s with cap room left, and assuming they replace Roy’s spot with McDavid, they will stay under the cap… but nowhere near a good enough roster.

  • This season would probably benefit from a buyout. The problem is that you have 1.5 in dead money next year as well. I think the best thing to do would be to trade him with a salary retention, if not this summer, then during the season.

    My understanding is that the buyout period ends on June 30th. That gives us a chance to acquire veteran players at the draft, so we’ll know whether we need to make cap space for free agents. If we, by some miracle, acquire Seabrook and a Chicago forward, we’ll need to make space.

    We have about 17 million in space right now, and we can expect McDavid to consume his entire 3.75, so we really have about 13 million to work with.

  • crackerjack14

    In regards to where Nikitin should be next year, I believe Marvin Gaye sang it best….

    Ain’t no mountain high enough,
    Ain’t no valley low enough
    Ain’t no river wide enough

    Buy out or bust.

  • CMG30

    We need to think about 2016/17 and that’s when we’re really going to need the cap room, especially with the cap potentially falling.

    I’m loath to use the term ‘developmental’ so I’ll just say that next year is going to be a corrective season. This means to say that Edmonton needs to use this season to point this organization in the right direction. We know that playoffs are a tall order but they need to start the process of building a winner. Edmonton needs to use this season to set themselves up for success.

    Basically, I would argue that the Oilers should just hold their nose and let Nikitin play out the string way down the roster, maybe even a healthy scratch most nights. Who knows, maybe the incentive of a contract year might motivate Nikitin to up his game… In any event, try to move him at the deadline for a bag of pucks to a team out of options to plug a hole on their back end.

  • dougtheslug

    Good Lord, these last two JW articles on Schultz and Nikitin just emphasize how utterly incompetent MacT was as a GM, especially on the defensive side of things. Saddling the team with 8 million dollars worth of dmen that are worth nothing on the open market is grounds enough for dismissal, while the Petry debacle is just icing on a particularly rancid cake.

    (Calm down, go to your happy place…….McDavid, McDavid, McDavid……….)

  • A-Mc

    Nikitin might be terrible but he’s an NHL defenseman. I wouldnt buy him out because that creates a hole. I dont see how you can trade him for an actual player, so that’s probably not in the cards. If i didnt need the cap space to sign a better option, i would just wait out his final year and trade him for a 4th round pick at the deadline.

    There is an off chance he regains some of his legitimacy next season. If i dont need the cap space, i’ll spend a rich mans money for a chance to see if that happens.