The Edmonton Oilers moved early in free agency, trading a fifth round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Nikita Nikitin and then signing him to a two-year contract for a mind-boggling $4.5 million per season. The usual failing of free agency is that it involves paying players for what they’ve accomplished in the past rather than what they might reasonably be expected to do in the future. The Oilers pulled off the rather unique feat of paying a player who hasn’t accomplished much in the past and, given his age, can’t reasonably be expected to accomplish more in the future.
If you’re unfamiliar with Nikitin (as I expect most people are, given that he’s only played in 206 NHL games, most of which were with a bad team), a synopsis of his career may be helpful. He first appeared in North America in 2010-11, when he played 41 games for the Blues, finishing ninth (On the Blues!) in TOI/G for defencemen. He played seven games for St. Louis in 2011-12, averaging over 20 minutes a night and was traded to Columbus after being scratched in eight of his last nine games.
In Columbus he became a top-four defenceman, finishing amongst the top four in TOI for Columbus “D” in 2011-12 and 2012-13. Students of NHL history will recall that those Columbus teams were not good. This year, the Blue Jackets improved dramatically, turning into a very good possession team over the final 50 games or so of the season. Unfortunately for Nikitin, it’s hard to give him much credit for that, because it coincided with him playing the seventh-most minutes per game amongst their defencemen, just 17:06 per night.
The Oilers would presumably like to be a good team. This requires many things to happen, one of which is acquiring good players; players who are better than those Edmonton already have. Is Nikitin just such a player? He’s actually a pretty complex case—there’s evidence for and against him—but on balance, I’m inclined to think that this is a ridiculous bet.
If you were looking to make a case for Nikitin, there are three things that stand out. First, he’s proven to be effective at generating 5v5 points. Second, he had a stellar run with Fedor Tyutin as a defence partner in 2011-12. Third, the Blue Jackets have outscored the opposition with Tyutin on the ice at 5v5 during his three years with the team.
All of these arguments are flawed. Although Tyutin is 30th in 5v5 PTS/60 amongst the 228 defencemen who’ve played at least 1,000 5v5 minutes from 2011 through ’14, the object of the game isn’t to score points—it’s to score more goals than the other team. Nikitin is 77th out of 228 defencemen in terms of his team’s 5v5 GF/60 when he’s on the ice. Moreover, he’s benefited from his team posting a higher shooting percentage than average when he’s on the ice, something that defencemen have little control over. In other words, he’s lucky that the goal totals are so high.
You may be tempted to think that Nikitin’s point production means that he creates more goals than the opposition. That’s not really a safe assumption with defencemen, who get a lot of points simply by moving the puck on or jumping into the offensive zone. Of course, jumping into the offensive zone comes at a cost, one which isn’t reflected in points—sometimes the opposition goes the other way and scores. If a defenceman jumps into the offensive zone a lot, he might pile up touches (and points) while not actually creating a net benefit in terms of goals.
The most important thing for a defenceman at 5v5 is the ability to positively impact possession. Do that and you’re increasing your team’s chances of scoring goals and reducing your team’s chances of allowing them. Nikitin’s record here is not positive. Only in one season is there any evidence that he was making his team any better when on the ice: 2011-12, after he was traded Columbus. Other than that, his team’s done better when he’s on the bench.
The final thing that really sticks out with Nikitin is that the Jackets are actually in the black at 5v5 when he’s on the ice, scoring 102 goals and giving up 91. Does that suggest that he might be worth the commitment that the Oilers have made to him? Not really. Nikitin’s been the beneficiary of some puck luck, with a PDO (5v5 on-ice shooting percentage plus on-ice save percentage) of 101.2. That’s not likely to repeat in the future.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with sifting through players discarded by teams every year, looking for those who have slipped through the cracks. The Oilers have some history with this—Steve Staios and Jason Smith, two of the their top-four defencemen the last time they were a good team, were both tossed aside by their previous teams. The Oilers took them in, paid them very little initially and were rewarded.
If the Oilers had signed Nikitin to a deal for $2.5 million or less total, it would be hard to be too critical of it. Even if it hadn’t worked, the cap hit would be small and unlikely to prevent them from doing anything else. This is real money though and it will limit what the Oilers are able to do until 2016.
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.