When the Columbus Blue Jackets acquired Nikitan Nikitin in a trade with the St. Louis Blues for defenseman Kris Russell, many thought the Jackets absolutely robbed the Blues blind, trading an undersized (though skilled) defenseman for the beefy 6-foot-3, 217 pound Nikitin. He started his career in Columbus off with a cannon-esque bang, playing sound in terms of position, keeping poise and teetering on being an offensive dynamo. He made good passes and continuously unleashed a solid boom of a shot from the blue line, earning seven goals and receiving 32 points in 54 games played.
Then the truncated 2012-13 season with the Blue Jackets hit. Suddenly Nikitin seemed like a liability. His play was wildly inconsistent, causing a lot of fingers to point in his direction. His once sound, quick decision making seemed to give way to profound indecisiveness. His offensive numbers came crashing back down to earth; in 38 games played, he put up a pedestrian three goals and nine points. What people seem to forget about though, are the few games he didn’t play and why.
Nikitin took a monster hit that season that resulted in a concussion. He didn’t look like the same player for some time. On a team that nearly made the playoffs based on nearly perfect defense and goaltending, his every slip up was magnified. How much of that had to do with his concussion isn’t known, but it almost certainly had a detrimental affect on his play.
Then the 2013-14 season started up and the pre-consussion Nikitin seemed to come back to life. Though his offensive numbers make it seem more and more likely that his initial Jackets season’s offensive output was an aberration, that’s okay though. Blue liners are paid the big bucks to keep pucks out of the net their, and Nikitin has done a solid job with that on the second pair with David Savard this season. It’s an impressive rebound when many were starting to wonder just how worthwhile he’d be patrolling the blue line on a third pair.
That being said, it’s no secret that Team Russia’s weakness is their defensemen. Nikitin is a sound, improving NHLer, but he wouldn’t make many of the rosters on other top-flight Olympic teams with legitimate aspirations of winning the gold medal. He’ll likely be working Russia’s third, bottom pair. This is for the best.
Now, don’t confuse this as saying Nikitin can’t be a valuable contributor in his Winter Olympics debut. He’s got a big body to throw around, though he doesn’t do that nearly enough. For a man of his build, he has excellent mobility. This, plus him playing in the KHL during last year’s lockout, bodes well for him adjusting to the wider Olympic ice. His anticipation in his own end is nothing to scoff at either, often breaking up plays before they can come to fruition.
Though his offensive output two seasons ago seems like a distant memory, that doesn’t mean he can’t put a slapper or two past opposing goalies with that beast of a slap shot. His crisp outlet passes should help stretch an already expanded ice, surely springing breakaways for Russia’s elite, speedy skilled forwards. His familiarity with fellow Jacket skaters Fedor Tyutin and Artem Anisimov is certainly a welcomed plus.
How will he and the rest of their blue line fair against top-tier countries like USA, Sweden and defending champs Canada? Nikitin’s play will mean a lot for Russia’s entire campaign to be standing on the top podium in Sochi.