The Oilers Rig

Blue & Sentimental: Howson Niks Jackets

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The Oilers made an interested move today.

This follows on the heels of a couple of interesting things Islanders’ GM Garth Snow has done. The Islanders, in desperate need to get better fast and drive their lost 2015 first round pick deep out of lottery land, have been spending conditional draft picks in order to acquire the negotiating rights on some prized UFAs. (The Isles succeeded in signing Halak and struck out with Boyle).

The strategy here is clear. A late round pick has a very limited chance of turning into an NHL player. Getting a window to woo a bona fide NHL player has enough value to stiff your scouts on draft day.

Now, the acquisition cost for the Oilers concerning Nikitin appears to be nothing if he fails to reach terms with the Oilers. The terms of what the Oilers will pay Columbus should he sign are unclear, though Jim Matheson has speculated the cost may be the return of Columbus’ 5th round pick (sent away for Nick Schultz at the deadline this past year).

Aaron Portzline has since confirmed this:

 

Basically, we are talking about a no-risk move. If Nikitin doesn’t sign? No harm, no foul. If he signs, the Oilers spend a marginal draft pick in order secure a player and avoid having to deal with him on the open market.

Scott Howson

There’s little doubt that this move is a Scott Howson move. Howson, current Senior VP of Hockey Operations for the Oilers and former GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets has already traded for the player once. In 2011, Howson sent Kris Russell to the Blues for Nikitin

So, in house the Oilers have a lot of experience with Nikitin. This move suggests, among other things, that Howson still sees a lot in the player he acquired in 2011. It has to be hoped that Howson’s relationship with Nikitin is strong enough that he can sway the Russian defender to sign with the Oilers at a reasonable deal.

Craig MacTavish

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(Photo: David Bloom/Edmonton Sun/QMI Agency from hereclick all photos to embiggen)

MacTavish has been making the media rounds recently. And, he’s been saying a lot.

On the blue line, he’s suggested he’d like to add a high-end puck moving defenseman and a shutdown defenseman.

Here’s one version of what he’s been talking about courtesy of Terry Jones’ at the Sun:

“I’d like to add four or five players — one or two through trades and two or three unrestricted free agents,” said MacTavish.

Trades are the first priority.

“It would be nice to get something in place before free agency,” said the general manager.

Getting something done before the June 27-28 draft would be nicer and he’ll get a feel for that this week.

“The managers meeting at the final really gets everybody talking a little bit more. This week will be a busy week for everybody to see what the fits are out there.

“We had our pro scouts meeting Thursday and Friday. We had some good discussions there.

“This year there are not so many top free agents available. The guys who would normally be secondary targets are now the primary targets. It’s a good year to be a UFA.”

MacTavish isn’t playing his cards close to his vest at this point. You could consider this advertising.

“We need help on defence. We’re looking for a puck-moving defenceman, a guy who can carry the puck north and continue into open ice.”

This acquisition, he admits, is almost certainly going to have to come through trade.

“We also need a defending defenceman. We’re not going to compromise our young prospects on defence,” he said of forcing the likes of Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Martin Marincin, etc. into the line-up until they are ready.

“We’d rather they played in the American Hockey League or junior.”

The question for Oilers’ fans today is: which does MacTavish view Nikitin as?

The funny thing here… is that Nikitin doesn’t really fit a perfect mold.

MacTavish sets out this binary: puck-moving/trade/before free agency VS defending-defenseman/UFA signing

What the hell? Nikitin was traded for, before the free agency window starts and he’s a “puck moving defenseman.”

BUT… he’s also a UFA, not exactly considered a high end defenseman and is ideally suited on a good 3rd pairing (the traditional home of “defending-defensemen”).

I think it is fair to say that the potential acquisition of Nikitin clouds the issue somewhat as far as MacTavish has laid it out in the past. Perhaps the greatest concern with such an acquisition is what it means for the Oilers’ kid blue: is one on the way out for that high-end puck mover? Or, is MacTavish going to follow through and keep them safe and dry in the minors?

Anton Belov

Belov and Nikitin have a lot of experience together. They played on the same team in the KHL for two years (2008-09 and 2009-10) and have been paired together at various international competitions.

The fact that the Oilers scouted and signed Belov just adds to the sense that they must have a pretty good read on what Nikitin is as a player. However, because things went sour with Belov, it’s also plausible that he may ward Nikitin off of signing with the Oilers.

Nikita Nikitin

Well, let’s get on with it. What’s this guy all about?

First, he’s been caught in the rumor swirl for a while. Way back on November 3rd Jim Matheson reported the Jackets were trying to move him. Over the past few years, Nikitin has seen his ice-time dwindle, found himself scratched more than once and seen his point production flounder. The Jackets clearly feel they have better options coming up through the ranks and are moving on from Nikitin regardless of whether the Oilers manage to sign him.

The Hockey News gives us a good overview of the player’s pro scouting report:

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So, we’ve got a big fella (6’4″ 216), who’s fairly mobile on his skates, can move the puck but doesn’t necessarily crush bones the way Oilers’ fans tend to like. He’s still fairly young too (just turned 28).

Cap Hit?

He coming off of a two year deal with a cap hit of 2.15M.

 

The Oilers are in the enviable position of being able to offer term and dollars to UFAs. For a player like Nikitin, however, modesty is the best policy.

He looks like he may have declined in play quite a bit over the last couple of years (we’ll get into this more shortly) and if that trend continues, 4 years might become a real headache. The good side here is he is just now 28. This isn’t a Ference situation, where term is a red flag on day one. I suspect with Nikitin the question will be more about what “major money” means. If the Oilers have Nikitin pegged as a 3rd pairing guy with possible 2nd pairing coverage, they can’t afford to break the bank on him.

Boxcars:

2013-14: 66 2-13-15; 5×5 P/60: 0.84

2012-13: 38 3-6-9; 5×5 P/60: 0.59

2011-12: 54 7-25-32; 5×5 P/60: 1.28

You can see that he’s lost ground in terms of scoring. The 5×5 P/60 numbers help us rule out PP and TOI concerns. Even looking at this scoring this way, you can see that 2011-12 was a very good year for him. In fact, that year he was fifth in the league for D (>40GPs) in P/60. This past year, he actually scored pretty well, showing that his huge dip in the middle year was perhaps an outlier.

Time On Ice

2013-14, TOI P/60: 15.07 (7th on the team)

2012-13, TOI P/60: 16.16 (4th on the team)

2011-12, TOI P/60: 16.91 (4th on the team)

Over the course of the past 3 seasons, Nikitin has lost about a minute of 5×5 time, suggesting his coaches were losing confidence in his abilities and seeking other options.

2013-14, PP TOI/60: 0.81; SH: 0.75

2012-13: PP TOI/60: 1.81; SH: 2.31

2011-12: PP TOI/60: 2.77; SH: 2.72

You can see that his special teams TOI has been cut year-over-year. It’s unclear how Eakins would employ him based on this track record but considering the Oilers current defensive depth chart, I would guess Nikitin would see minimal PP time and a fair amount of PK time.

Underlying Numbers

2013-14: CorsiOn: -1.45; CorsiRel: -3.0

This is a less than inspiring set of numbers. The puck wasn’t heading toward happy land when Nikitin was on the ice. Mind you, it wasn’t a tire fire disaster either.

Let’s look at his usage chart to get a better read:

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 10.51.08 AM

Nikitin is in the “less sheltered” quadrant. That means he’s facing modest zone starts and getting easy quality of competition (by TOI per extraskater).

Let’s take a look at his WOWY chart to see if his teammates are laying some heavy influence on his numbers:

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 10.54.38 AM

I’d like to draw your attention to his most common D-partners. Nikitin played most of the season with Savard (c. 533 5×5 minutes together) and had a positive impact on the pairing (Savard without Nikitin: 46% CF; Nikitin without Savard: 49.2%). Nikitin and Prout (c. 222 5×5 minutes together) draw to an even 48.4% CF without each other. Neither was overwhelming the other.

This is encouraging.

Over the course of his NHL career, his WOWY chart looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 10.57.33 AM

Here we can see that his early time spent with Tyutin helped him along, though he wasn’t greatly outclassed. In general this is a mixed bag. We get a larger sample of Nikitin helping Prout get into the black and we can see he helped push a variety of forwards into the happy land.

My co-Rigist, Boris Nikov put together this nice chart based on his past 3 years of NHL play:

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(All this data is via extraskater)

While the CF% numbers wander like a drunk through an obstacle course, it is interesting to see his quality of competition and teammates remain relatively flat throughout the period.

Not Everything, but Something is in Fact Happening

Assuming two things: they can sign Nikitin to a reasonable deal and they view him as solving the itch MacTavish has for a so-called “defensive-defenseman”… I love this deal.

It’s a no risk attempt to game the market. If it doesn’t work out, you lose nothing. The only real concern is that it does work out, but the Oilers have Nikitin pegged as something he’s not: that elusive high-end puck moving defenseman. If they view Nikitin as filling that role and/or they view him as making one of the Kid Ds expendable (the Oilers have a rough history of thinking this way), then it will be a calamity.

If Howson isn’t clear-eyed here and isn’t overly sentimental for a player once acquired, we’ll be fine.

We wait. We hope.

One Comment

  1. WheatNOil

    June 20, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    Nice post. Well summarized. The only thing to add is that a lot of his decline in the last couple years have come with a new coach in place in Columbus. He did well Arniel, but has lost ice time with Todd Richards. Now, that might not mean anything, because his possession numbers dropped a bit as well, but it’s odd that you’d get that decline in a defender on the good side of 30 (unless you’re named Grebeshkov I guess).

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