TAMPA, Fla. — It was the height of the NHL’s Russian chill. When Nikita Nesterov made his way to North America before the 2011 draft there were plenty of interested teams.
“We did 17 or 18 interviews,” agent Gary Greenstin told Sportsnet on Thursday. “But you could tell everyone was scared.”
The fear wasn’t completely unfounded. Those were better times for the KHL, where Nesterov was playing for hometown Chelyabinsk Traktor, and the defenceman had failed to join the WHL’s Tri-City Americans as planned for his draft year because of visa issues.
A player that some scouts believed had late first-round potential fell all the way to the fifth. Then the Tampa Bay Lightning called his name with the 158th overall pick.
Nesterov was the third player of Russian heritage the Lightning selected that weekend, which is pretty notable given that only nine were taken in total. All of them are now with the NHL team as it plays for the Stanley Cup, as is backup goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, a 2012 first-rounder with serious star potential.
To have success in a salary cap league it is essential to continue populating your roster with homegrown talent and the Lightning refused to let borders get in the way of that pursuit.
“I go back to Detroit — I played with some pretty darn good Russian players and Russian people,” said Tampa GM Steve Yzerman. “Just to cross those guys off the list would be (a mistake). It’s hard enough to find good players, let alone pick and choose what country they’re coming from.”
Of course, every situation is unique. Vladislav Namestnikov was born in Russia but spent a good portion of his youth in Detroit, where his uncle Slava Kozlov played for the Red Wings on a line with Yzerman.
Nikita Kucherov, the current star of Tampa’s Russian Four, was open about his desire to play in the NHL and spent a season in the QMJHL before making the jump to pro hockey. Vasilevskiy signed an entry-level deal when his KHL contract expired last spring.
Nesterov was also eager to come to North America, but it required an act of faith to draft him. It helped that Greenstin and Yzerman had a longstanding relationship — Greenstin also represents Yzerman’s former teammate Pavel Datsyuk — and could keep an open line of communication.
During one conversation, Greenstin recalled the GM saying: “Gary, I’m drafting you along with him.”
“(Scouting director) Al Murray and our staff really liked the player,” said Yzerman. “They came to the draft and we interviewed them and we talked to Gary; and Gary, he gets it. We trusted what he had to say, that the player wants to come over.
“There’s got to be some trust involved with the player and the agent.”
Still, you can understand why it might be a difficult decision. Nesterov had a seven-figure deal on the table from Chelyabinsk when he signed an entry-level contract that paid him $70,000 in base salary to play for AHL Syracuse last season.
He was also there for half of this year before getting called up for 27 regular-season games with the Lightning. He’s added 15 more in the playoffs.
“We do as much homework as we can on every player we draft,” said Yzerman. “We find out everything we can. The (Russian) players that we’ve drafted we’ve tried to be certain as possible that their goal is to play in the NHL and they’re prepared to go the American league, if necessary, and do the things you have to do.”
Nesterov might be a depth player during this playoff run, but it’s no coincidence that Lightning coach Jon Cooper has dressed seven defencemen for the majority of the games this post-season. He wants Nesterov’s skill in the lineup and sees a bright future for him.
Kucherov is already a core member of the team, Vasilevskiy is expected to be the future No. 1 goalie and Namestnikov carries high hopes as well.
As it turns out, we’re likely to see the number of Russians in the NHL jump next season. The KHL is on shaky financial footing because of the declining ruble and deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Wednesday that there have been discussions about expanding the transfer agreement between the two leagues.
The Lightning, meanwhile, were ahead of the curve and are now trying to win a championship with a pretty diverse roster: Nine Canadians, six Americans, four Russians, two Czechs, two Swedes and a Finn.
“We’re never going to not draft a player because of where he’s from,” said Yzerman. “The reality is with the Russian players you just have to be a little bit more patient because they do have another option.”
The thing about patience is that it usually pays off.