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Can Nikita Nikitin Bounce Back this season?

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The buyout window has come and gone, yet the Russian defenceman is still an Oiler. Can we expect a better player in 2015/16?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Without a doubt, the 2014/2015 season is one to forget for 29-year old defenceman Nikita Nikitin. After being acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets for a fifth-round pick last summer before his contract expired, and signing a staggering 2-year deal worth $9 million, Nikitin failed to establish himself as a top four defenceman. The Oilers had the right idea in bringing in a defender in his late twenties, allowing some of the prospects to continue developing in the appropriate leagues. But the price was steep for a player with just over 200 NHL games under his belt. And there were few signs that he would be a difference maker.

Tyler Dellow, just a few months prior to being hired by the Edmonton Oilers, wrote an insightful article after Nikitin was acquired  highlighting some of the underlying numbers that Nikitin had posted in Columbus. The money quote below:

It's hard to find good bargains in free agency. It's harder when you sign a player to deal that is probably only worth it if he works out incredibly well. The Oilers might well say that they don't need bargains, they've got players on bargain contracts and they need more talent. The thing is, it's hard to say from his record that Nikitin is good enough to make the Oilers better. He looks a lot more like a reclamation project who's already being paid as if he's worked out. We'll see if he's a top-four defenceman by February. I'm skeptical. (Source: Sportsnet)

By eye, it was apparent that Nikitin was battling some physical ailments this past season as he consistently made poor decisions and was often caught out of position. It was frustrating to watch a player who the Oilers paid excessively for  struggle with what seemed to be the most basic elements of defending. Nikitin played in only 42 games this past season, posting a disappointing 4 points at even-strength. Hardly enough to warrant a $4.5 million contract. He did show some signs of life on the powerplay where he had a decent shot from the point. But he just couldn't play at a consistent level game-to-game.

Despite the rumors of the Oilers potentially buying him out, along with an excessive amount of criticism from fans, the Oilers will retain the services of Nikitin for the final year of his contract. Before deciding if this is a good thing or not, there are a couple things to note.

N. Nikitin (Even-strength, 5v5)
Season Team Games TOI (TOI/Gm) Goals Assists Points (P/60) Corsi For% (Corsi Rel) ZSO% (ZSO Rel) PDO
2010/11 STL 41 531.67 (12.97) 1 2 3 (0.34) 50.65 (-2.57) 54.01 (+2.23) 100.17
2011/12 STL/CBJ 61 1,005.55 (16.48) 4 16 20 (1.19) 50.66 (+3.65) 43.75 (-4.21) 97.80
2012/13 CBJ 38 607.86 (16.00) 2 4 6 (0.59) 46.07 (-1.65) 46.99 (-3.15) 102.93
2013/14 CBJ 67 1,001.36 (14.95) 1 13 14 (0.84) 49.27 (-1.74) 49.34 (+1.97) 102.17
2014/15 EDM 42 649.33 (15.46) 1 3 4 (0.37) 48.85 (-0.51) 51.55 (+4.99) 95.33

Source: War on Ice

His PDO (5v5 on-ice shooting percentage plus on-ice save percentage) was 95.3 last season, which is quite low when gauging the luck he had this year. Of the defencemen who played a minimum of 600 minutes last season at 5v5, only Tyson Strachan of the lowly Buffalo Sabres had a lower PDO than Nikitin. He was the beneficiary of some puck-luck in Columbus (102.93 in 2012/13 and 102.17 in 2013/14), but it appears that the universe is balancing out for him. His PDO should definitely improve with better goaltending this upcoming season, along with the new additions up front and on defence. Worth noting that the defencemen with the worst luck in 2013/14 all saw their PDO get closer to a 100.0 the following season: Alexander Edler, Seth Jones and Dmitry Kulikov.

His Corsi% Relative to his teammates was -0.51, which isn't great, but was an improvement from his two seasons in Columbus. He got a slightly higher number of offensive zone starts, but didn't really capitalize on his opportunities. Over the past three years, Nikitin has shown signs of being an average NHL defenceman being able to suppress shots and contributing to scoring chances.

What's also worth noting is that Nikitin actually fared well this past season when the score was close. This is when the game is tied or within one goal in the first and second or when the game is tied in the third. We know the Oilers trailed a lot this past season, which impacted their team strategies. By focusing on score-close,  we take out the score effects and get a better assessment of player performance.

N. Nikitin (Even-strength, 5v5, Score Close)
Season Team Games TOI (TOI/Gm) Goals Assists Points (P/60) Corsi For% (Corsi Rel) ZSO% (ZSO Rel) PDO
2010/11 STL 41 332.8 (8.12) 1 0 1 (0.18) 49.13 (-3.35) 55.36 (+1.75) 101.45
2011/12 STL/CBJ 61 592.57 (9.71) 2 9 11 (1.11) 50.38 (+3.24) 45.21 (-2.91) 97.44
2012/13 CBJ 38 458.94 (12.08) 1 4 5 (0.65) 45.18 (-2.01) 47.06 (-3.79) 104.47
2013/14 CBJ 67 610.33 (9.11) 0 9 9 (0.88) 51.59 (-1.06) 53.24 (+5.35) 101.73
2014/15 EDM 42 411.73 (9.8) 1 2 3 (0.44) 49.33 (+0.64) 47.57 (-0.49) 96.39

His Corsi For % relative to his teammates when the score was close was +0.64, third on the team, which is definitely a good sign. Worth noting that he didn't get a heavier proportion of offensive zone starts relative to his teammates either in this situation. He still had terrible luck, one of the worst in the league, so we can expect better production next season with the an improved roster.

Thoughts

Taking another look at some of Nikitin's underlying numbers from this past season gives us some hope that he can bounce back and be that reliable second or third pairing defenceman the Oilers need. Because of his injuries, the Oilers did not get a real assessment of the player they paid handsomely for. Instead, the club has to take another gamble and hope that he can come to camp stronger and ready to compete for a roster spot.

It's easy to hone in on a single player and pick apart their every move on the ice and continue compounding the mistakes, whether it be minor or critical. Of course, it doesn't help when the player costs $4.5 million per season either. But taking a step back and assessing a player's worth holistically is where we might see some hidden value. Nikitin isn't going to be a number one defenceman anytime soon, but there's enough evidence that suggests that he can play in the NHL as a supporting player. And if for whatever reason Nikitin plays as inconsistent as he did last season, the Oilers can either deal him for picks at the deadline or let him stroll into free agency, saving cap space for the 2016/17 season.