The Montreal Canadiens acquired defenseman Nikita Nesterov from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Jonathan Racine and a sixth-round pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft on Thursday.
The deal was announced just minutes before the Lightning were set to faceoff against the Florida Panthers and during a matchup between the Canadiens and the New York Islanders — the last games for the clubs before the All-Star break.
Nesterov, 23, is a low-cost addition to the Habs’ blue line and gives them some depth at the position. This offseason, he signed a one-year, $725,000 deal as a restricted free agent to begin his third campaign in a Lightning uniform.
He’s seen action in 35 games this season and tallied three goals and nine assists while averaging 16:35 of ice time per contest. A fifth-round pick in the 2011 draft, Nesterov is a smooth skater who has seen some time at forward in 2016-17, as the Lightning have battled numerous injuries to many key forwards.
When he was in the lineup as a defenseman, he often filled the sixth or seventh slot for the club and plays a physical style at times.
In 119 career regular-season games, he’s compiled nine goals and 19 assists, along with 77 penalty minutes. He’s also added seven points in 26 postseason contests — bringing valuable playoff experience to a Canadiens team that is priming themselves for what they hope will be a deep run.
Racine is a 23-year-old defenseman who has registered three assists and 58 penalty minutes in 26 games with the St. John’s IceCaps in the American Hockey League this season. The 6’2″, 202-pound Montreal native was originally drafted by the Florida Panthers 87th overall in the 2011 draft and also plays with a bit of an edge. He was acquired by the Canadiens from the Panthers in November 2016. Racine made his NHL debut when he skated in one game with the Panthers in the 2013-14 season.
While the Canadiens sit atop the Atlantic Division with 65 points, the Lighting are on the outside looking in at the playoff picture — five points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
The trade is unique in that it comes between division rivals at a crucial point in the second half of the regular season. However, both clubs have been speculated to be evaluating the trade market as they look ahead for ways to improve now and beyond.
While the Lightning are in pursuit of their fourth-straight playoff berth, there has been a lot for general manger Steve Yzerman to think about past this season. For the second straight summer, he’s faced with a handful of important players eyeing free agency.
Forwards Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are among the restricted free agents, while Brian Boyle will be an unrestricted free agent. Among other players, defenseman Andrej Sustr will be an RFA and Ben Bishop is in the last year of his contract and may be playing out his final season in a Lightning uniform. Yzerman is also evaluating which players will be protected during the expansion draft this summer — something that is weighing on each NHL GMs decision-making now.
It’s possible that Racine receives some playing time with the Lightning in a sixth or seventh defenseman role as the team looks to add to their blue line this season. However, even if he doesn’t play at the NHL level now, he gives them some young depth at the defense position — a must for the Lightning as they look towards the future.