#6 / Defense / Columbus Blue Jackets
2013 Cap Hit: $2,150,000
Nikitin is a natural athlete and fluid skater who has no issues getting around the ice. Smooth stride, very natural movements. He's one of those guys who looks like he was born with ice skates on. His combination of size and skating ability allow him to get back into position almost effortlessly even when he takes chances offensively. Has a decent, albeit unspectacular, shot from the point. He's a guy who will use his above-average vision to find a pass first but when it comes time to shoot, can fire the puck with some accuracy. Defensively, Nikitin plays a very calm, responsible game as his calling card is poise. He uses his stick well and reads plays very well in order to shut down offenses. Nikitin played on a stacked defense last season in Columbus but managed to scratch out 17 minutes per night, a workload that would be very similar to what he could expect in Colorado.
Notice I posted almost no statistics in that section above me? Yeah, because Nikitin is coming off what can only be described as a bit of a lost season for him. He's lost a bit of the shine he put on himself when he broke out with a wonderful two-way game and a career-high 32 points in 54 games 3 seasons ago. He played well during the lockout-shortened season but his play took a nosedive this past season as Columbus relied on a more established/touted top 4 of Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, Fedor Tyutin, and 2012 #2 overall pick Ryan Murray. With that kind of lineup in front of him, you can't really blame the Blue Jackets for moving Nikitin down the line but you certainly hoped he would have responded a bit better. He was a negative possession player against weaker competition and his point production dropped to a meager .22 PPG, which is .01 better than the rate at which Jan Hejda scored last season. For a guy whose offense is supposed to be a big part of his appeal, that's unacceptable. Nikitin plays a bit softer than you'd like for a man of his stature, which always annoys the Bobs and Dans of the world because big guys should be hitting people in the corner, damnit (I don't necessarily disagree).
Nikitin is just finishing up a classic bridge contract, 2-years, $4.3M, $2.15 AAV, and Columbus hasn't even approached him about coming back because of their logjam along the blueline. Because he's considered an offensive type of defenseman who can play solid defense, coming off a 15-point season heading into the open market wasn't exactly the greatest outcome for Nikitin and certainly makes it difficult for me and NHL GMs to assign an appropriate dollar figure for him. At 28, you figure this is his prime right now and his age of decay should begin in the next couple of years and without an overly impressive track record, I'd expect something along the lines of a 2-3 year deal in the range of $2.5-$3M per season. I think anything beyond a 4-year, $12M deal would be exorbitant.
Why It Works:
I just described Colorado's next great reclamation project! Nikitin is exactly the kind of player the Avs have loved taking chances on time and time again in recent years. There's nothing they seem to enjoy more than taking a guy on a downswing and giving him the chance to rebuild his career while we all typically watch in horror as he keeps getting played night after night (hi, Nate Guenin). He'd also come relatively cheaply, something that has appealed to the Avs above probably all else in the past few years. He's a lefty, which the Avs could realllllly use, and his offensive upside makes him a natural replacement for Andre Benoit should he not be brought back. If he is, Nikitin hopefully would push Nick Holden out of the lineup and allow the Avs to stop being the house of horrors defensively that we've had to sit through for so many years now.
I'm sure some of you (lookin at you, Hopf) remember that I've had a hockey crush on Nikita Nikitin for a handful of years now so you know I'm at the very least intrigued by his availability on the open market. I think his upside is still very much present and given the opportunities he wasn't afforded in Columbus, namely PP time, would bring out the best his game has to offer. Nikitin fits a lot of what the Avs typically look for and certainly still need so it's a natural fit in my mind. Of course, he is coming off a poor season and did very little to distinguish himself while entering a market flooded with third-pairing level defenders. As there are no truly big fish in the sea this year, some classic MMO-style min-maxing wouldn't hurt the Avs very much. If they aren't going to acquire a clear upgrade to their second pairing, they could certainly make a move like signing Nikitin to improve the overall depth of the defense and mitigate the damage injuries could do to the team. As usual, if the pricetag fits nicely, I'd be happy with Nikitin joining the Avs.