On Thursday, the Oilers recalled defenceman Nikita Nikitin from the Bakersfield Condors.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) December 10, 2015
Nikitin, who was demoted to the AHL out of training camp, returns to the roster as a replacement for another struggling veteran. Yesterday the Oilers placed Mark Fayne on waivers (he has since cleared) and so there was room to add another rearguard to the roster.
This is an interesting move, and tells us a few things about the Oilers organization.
The first thing this tells us is about Nikitin himself. It had to be embarrassing for the veteran NHL’er to be cut by the Oilers out of training camp, and having made such a decision Edmonton could well have left him in the minors for the entire year; it’s not like there weren’t other candidates for recall on the back end. That he’s back suggests rather strongly that the coaches down on the farm are pleased with the work that he’s done to get back to the majors.
It also shows once again that the Oilers under Chiarelli are willing to revisit decisions. If this is good news for anyone, it’s Fayne, who in Nikitin should see his own path back to the NHL. Work hard and play well in the minors and a door opens up.
What it says beyond that is more open to question.
One way to read this is as asset management, or an indication that a trade is on the way. Nikitin is in the final year of his deal, can play both the right and left side of the ice, can contribute in multiple ways when he’s on his game and generally hasn’t been as bad a defenceman over his career as he looked in his first year with Edmonton. If he plays well, he might be worth a mid-round pick at the deadline to a team in need of help on the back end.
The other way to read this is as a strictly merit-based decision, which is probably even more interesting. If this move was simply a result of the Oilers recalling the best defenceman in the system, that reflects negatively on people like Griffin Reinhart and David Musil, both of whom we would expect to be in the mix for NHL minutes. In Reinhart’s case, it may simply be a case of the Oilers not wanting to bounce him around like a yo-yo, though it gets harder to make the “he’s only down because of waivers” argument when Nikitin is recalled. In Musil’s case, waivers become a factor next year and if he’s going to make the NHL out of camp he’s probably going to need to do what Brandon Davidson did last year and get a cameo in which he looks at least somewhat ready.
Either way, this isn’t good news for Andrew Ference, who seems likely to resume his duties as the team’s No. 8 defenceman when he comes off injured reserve. It may also be bad news for Eric Gryba, who barring injury seems the defenceman most likely to come out of the lineup to open up space for Nikitin.
Whether or not this move was made as a way to showcase Nikitin, it’s hard not to feel good for the player. If someone is interested in him at the moment, he’s clearly played well enough to arouse that interest; if not he’s played well enough to earn another shot with the team that waived him. Either way, he’s shown something after a tough training camp and an embarrassing demotion and he’s found his way back to the best league on earth.