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Numbers Game: Oilers get deal done for Nikitin

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Scott Cullen
6/25/2014 11:01:33 AM
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The Edmonton Oilers traded for the rights to a free agent defenceman, and got him signed to a two-year deal, paying a premium for a shorter term contract.

Numbers Game looks at the Oilers inking Nikita Nikitin.

The Oilers Get: D Nikita Nikitin.

Nikitin, 28, played a career-high 66 games last season, an indication that he's still trying to establish his place in the league. A couple of years ago, in 2011-2012, Nikitin contributed a career-best 32 points in 54 games for Columbus (after seven scoreless games with St. Louis to start the year), playing a career-high 23:12 per game for the season putting up strong relative possession numbers while facing high-quality opposition, while frequently paired with veteran Fedor Tyutin. That's the Nikitin that the Oilers have to hope they are acquiring.

In 2012-2013, Nikitin's role was decreased somewhat, and while he still logged 21:12 per game, Nikitin was then surpassed on the depth chart last season by rookie Ryan Murray, leaving Nikitin to play 17:07 per game on the third pair. Playing on that third pair didn't bring ideal results, as Nikitin was a little below break-even in possession terms, but if there is reason to hold out hope for Nikitin, it may be that his with-or-without you numbers aren't bad over the past three seasons.

Among the 16 skaters with whom he played at least 300 5-on-5 minutes over those three seasons, Nikitin had better possession numbers apart than 11 of those skaters, but that relative effectiveness has decreased in the past two seasons, to the point that in 2013-2014, Nikitin had better possession stats apart from just three of the 13 skaters with whom he played more than 150 5-on-5 minutes.

What this would seem to indicate is that Nikitin, who has good size, can skate and handle the puck a bit, isn't necessarily one to carry the play. He could be a useful complementary player and presumably Oilers Senior VP of Hockey Operations Scott Howson (who acquired Nikitin as GM in Columbus) is a fan, but there is risk in bringing in a player with falling possession numbers to a team that already ranked 28th in Fenwick Close (unblocked shot attempts during 5-on-5, score within one goal in first two periods and tied in third period).

It's not as though Nikitin's play in the past couple seasons indicates that he would improve the results no matter with whom he is partnered and it's reasonable to wonder if the Oilers have the right personnel to get positive results with Nikitin on the ice. If the Jeff Petry and Martin Marincin pairing goes ahead, then perhaps Nikitin gets a chance alongside Andrew Ference.

Maybe that somehow works out and allows the Oilers some time to develop their young defencemen. It's entirely possible that it won't work out, though, and the short-term nature of the contract suggests that both sides recognize that risk. Signed to a two-year, $9-million deal, Nikitin will be well-compensated, particularly if he can't stick in the Oilers' top four, but the downside of a two-year deal is limited compared to the longer term that will be available to other free agent defencemen.

The Blue Jackets Get: A fifth-round pick.

Since the Blue Jackets weren't going to bring Nikitin back, getting any asset in return is a plus. The fifth-round pick, 137th overall, belonged to Columbus originally and was traded to Edmonton last season to acquire D Nick Schultz.

A fifth-round pick doesn't bring a lot of value, but it's something. From 1990 through 2009, just under 15% of the picks between 121 and 150 played at least 100 NHL games, so there is a little better than a one-in-seven chance of netting an NHL player.

While it's reasonable for the Oilers to have hope Nikitin can perform in a top-four role, it could be telling that the Blue Jackets would let Nikitin depart as a free agent. Mabye they simply didn't want to pay that kind of money to a third pair defenceman, when they have younger, cheaper options (David Savard, Dalton Prout, Tim Erixon) available and that's fair, but current Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen was the Blues' Director of Scouting when St. Louis picked Nikitin in the fifth round in 2004. Lots can change over time and the Blue Jackets aren't likely to regret letting Nikitin go, even if he works out well for the Oilers.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Mark Letestu Nikita Nikitin (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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