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?
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?
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
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.
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