Say nice things about Nikita Nikitin. Write good stuff about him too.
After a slow, seemingly out-of-shape start to training camp — picking up where he left off last season — the enigmatic Russian defenceman has suddenly been getting glowing reviews and a strange amount of praise during pre-season action.
That, after this from Jason Gregor of OilersNation, critiquing Nikitin’s effort on the opening day of training camp:
It might not be much, but today at the end of Group A practice they had a conditioning skate and one player stood out for all the wrong reasons. Players started at centre, skated down the boards into the north end of the rink, curled around pylons just inside the blueline and then had to skate hard down the middle of the ice to the other end, then curl either right or left and skate down the wall and then curl back into the middle and skate hard again. They did this for about 3 1/2 minutes. Halfway through it, Nikita Nikitin was breathing really hard. It is only one day, but based on what (former general manager Craig) MacTavish said last year, this caught my attention. He looked more fatigued than anyone else.
Talk about a change of tune. An about-face. A turncoat. But could this be a classic case of pump-and-dump, with the Edmonton Oilers trying to paint a positive picture of a player they are attempting to wheel-and-deal?
It’s no secret that Nikitin was an epic failure in Edmonton last season — a “prized” free-agent signing who was a bust from Day 1. Truth be told, he barely dodged the buyout bullet this summer — not once, but twice.
When the Oilers filed for team-elected salary arbitration with Justin Schultz — they settled ahead of the hearing — many assumed that move was made with the ulterior motive of exiling a veteran blue-liner via a CBA loophole that opened a second buyout window. Nikitin was the prime candidate, but declining captain Andrew Ference also got some warranted consideration.
Both are overpaid for what they offer, especially Nikitin on a bloated contract from Edmonton’s previous-but-still-in-the-fold management group — namely MacTavish and Scott Howson, the latter taking a shining to Nikitin from their time together in Columbus. Ference, for his part, has plummeted down the depth chart and could still be stripped of the ‘C’ with a coaching change also part of Edmonton’s off-ice overhaul this off-season, but that remains to be seen. Todd McLellan currently has more pressing matters in determining his opening-night roster.
Back on topic, that buyout window came and went without any axes falling. At first, there were condemning outcries, but then it made sense to swallow the final season of Nikitin’s two-year deal — he’s slated to earn $4.5 million again, more than double his worth. Reason being, Nikitin will be coming off the books at season’s end — regardless of his performance, for better or worse — whereas a buyout would have left him lingering on the payroll for the following season at a cap-hit of $1.5 million.
So the Oilers
begrudgingly brought back the 29-year-old defender for a second chance of sorts.
Worst-case scenario, Nikitin continues to stink it up and could be buried in the minors or perhaps banished to the KHL. Best-case scenario, he shows drastic improvement and becomes serviceable despite a price-tag above and beyond his ceiling. If that best-case comes to fruition, maybe just maybe the Oilers could find a taker on the trade market.
A week ago, in the infancy of training camp, the worst-case appeared to be shaping up. Nikitin was sounding like dead weight. An anchor on the back end, but in the sinking sense. A financial burden, to be frank.
Yet, a few exhibition games later, now Nikitin is apparently staying afloat and potentially earning his keep, if not his paycheque.
Nikitin has been better than our captain, Still has a lot to prove but Nikitin hasn't been too bad so far. #Oilers
— Heather Marginet (@margih99) September 27, 2015
Could it be true? Or could it be a cover? An elaborate scheme to pawn off Nikitin on some poor sucker in charge of a club desperate for defensive depth?
One factor in the back of everyone's mind; training camp injuries. Is there hope of unloading the Nikitin contract yet? #Oilers
— Shane Sander 🏒 (@SanderEDM) September 23, 2015
A team like, say, the Boston Bruins, who lost Dennis Seidenberg to back surgery and also have Zdeno Chara sidelined by an upper-body injury? Boston GM Don Sweeney is probably wishing he had a mulligan on Cody Franson right about now — that he pulled the trigger on that long-rumoured-yet-somehow-botched signing — but could Edmonton counterpart Peter Chiarelli pull a fast one on his old understudy-turned-nemesis? Have they moved past that Dougie Hamilton debacle from the draft in June, when Chiarelli and the Oilers were supposedly hinting at an offer sheet before Sweeney shipped the budding blue-liner to the rival Calgary Flames for a package of picks that amounted to a bag of peanuts?
There could be a fit there — if that mutual disdain has subsided — but a few other teams could use a “veteran presence” on the back end as well. The Washington Capitals, Dallas Stars and Arizona Coyotes immediately come to mind as possible suitors for Nikitin.
The Oilers would be dealing from a position of strength, or at least from a power-in-numbers standpoint with a glut of 10 defencemen still competing for eight — but ideally seven — spots following Saturday night’s round of cuts. It’s evident that Edmonton would like to keep Griffin Reinhart on the roster — having parted with a first-round pick to pluck him from the New York Islanders — and that would be more feasible if Nikitin and/or Ference could be sent packing. The Oilers would obviously have to retain some of Nikitin’s salary and might even be willing to sweeten the pot by throwing in a pick or a prospect like Tyler Pitlick — assuming he goes unclaimed on waivers, and is bound for the new farm team in Bakersfield — to facilitate that type of multi-purpose transaction. A half-eaten bag of peanuts would suffice in return.
— Baggedmilk, Kool-Aid Drinking Oilers Guy (@jsbmbaggedmilk) September 26, 2015
The real question is, can Chiarelli get somebody to drink the Kool-Aid that the Edmonton media is currently serving up. At the end of the day, you can paint lipstick on a pig, but . . . you know how that story goes.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.