Blog: Nesterov Project Had to End

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Nikita Nesterov was dealt to Montreal for a sixth round pick and Jonathan Racine yesterday just prior to the Lightning's overtime loss in Sunrise. It marked Lightning GM Steve Yzerman’s first NHL player trade since February 9, 2015, when he sent Evgeni Nabokov to San Jose for future considerations.

Scoring the overtime winner for Florida in the first game of the post-Nesterov “era” was none other than Jonathan Marchessault, and thank you, hockey gods, for giving us a direct comparison of two players who were handled differently for the Lightning in Nesterov and Marchessault.

Marchessault was an effective top-6 fill-in during Tampa Bay’s injury woes last season and all he did was appear on scoresheets. He was among league leaders for most of the season in points per 60-minutes-played, though when healthy bodies came back Marchessault was regulated to energy line duty or serving popcorn in the pressbox. This, despite offensive deficiencies by the Lightning - especially on the power play. For a guy who plays so well in space and has a goal-scorer’s shot, for him not to be used on a bad power play last year is as confusing as it gets. It brings back memories of Jonathan Drouin's rookie year when he didn't see much power play time despite that being his bread-and-butter and an easy, trustable way to cut his teeth at the NHL level.

As for Marchessault, he wanted security and more than a one-year deal after the season and the Lightning, now chock-full of forward options, wouldn't offer that. Florida could.

I have no problem with the Lightning not giving Marchessault a 2-year deal like Florida did because of the hoard of young forwards they have in the system ready to contribute now and next year. The decision was easy for Marchessault, who was no doubt looking at popcorn duty again if he stayed with the Lightning.

But ... one wonders if Marchessault could have played himself onto the team these next two years had he been given every chance that Nesterov got with the Lightning (and I won't mention Drouin in this same situation because that horse was beaten into some kind of skunk ape vapor).

Nesterov looks like a good defenseman, but in reality falls into that tweener category between the NHL and AHL. I'll be surprised if he's not in the KHL, actually, next year, as he and his young family could move home and have a nice life/career. At the end of the day, these are humans with families, and although his play on the ice was a constant adventure, he's a young, caring father with dreams for his family just like the rest of us.

But back to hockey ... in Chicago, specifically.

Nesterov made a horrific giveaway early in the Chicago game directly leading to a Blackhawks goal. We've seen this before from him. He's been the Oprah of the Lightning defense this year, giving everyone free scoring chances. He's been scratched in the past for it, but the bad decisions under pressure continue. Unlike the punished Marchessault and Drouin before him, however, Nesterov didn't miss a shift against Chicago and ended up playing over 17 minutes.

And perhaps that's why Yzerman stepped in. It's a different world on Lightning D compared to forwards, and maybe that's a Bowness vs Cooper thing. You get chance after chance on D, but at forward there is strong accountability. Matt Carle was a trainwreck at times last season, but continually had a place in the lineup up until the playoffs when there was no room for error anymore.

That's when we witnessed a young, rising player named Slater Koekkoek overtake both Carle and Nesterov for ice time on the left side.

Yzerman finally said good-bye to Carle, who wasn't good enough to stay in Nashville's lineup and is now out of the league, opening a spot for Koekkoek – but that was given to Nesterov. And now Nesterov is gone. I guess that's one way to make sure mistakes don't happen over and over on the backline -- don't have that player as an option.

Nesterov looked like he could be a puckmoving defenseman on the left side, but he has never been an effective, producing puckmoving defenseman. The only time he had decent numbers in his career was his last year of Russian juniors when he had 11 goals and 31 points in 41 games. Most NHL puckmovers are high point producers in juniors and AHL. Nesterov, who has a nice shot – also on display vs Chicago – has never had a season when he’s scored more than five goals since Russian juniors. His career high for assists was 12, with Syracuse. Twelve.

He’s not a puck-mover, though the Lightning, desperately needing a puckmover this year, looked at their group of apples they had available and, needing an orange, took the apple that looked the closest.

Usually in that situation the player is strong enough defensively to not be a liability. That wasn’t the case with Nesterov. It’d be one thing if he was old-school Mike Green – weak in his end but able to counter that with strong point production. Nesterov wasn’t that guy; wasn’t going to be it. And he wasn’t a defense-first defender, either, by any means.

So, what does that leave? Exactly.

Nesterov has never really shown that he can be more than a third pair defenseman at best, and that’s because of his mobility. There just isn’t enough upside there to hold out hope that he’ll one day become another Anton Stralman, though, yes, Lloyd, I'm saying there's a chance.

Yzerman said in a post-trade interview that Nesterov has potential. True, but it’s a longshot. NHL Insider Elliotte Friedman said in an interview with a Calgary radio station Friday that Nesterov had wanted out and wanted a consistent chance to play. There were rumors in the summer that Nesterov wanted a clearer path to playing time, but Yzerman either couldn’t move him or was protecting his defensive depth by keeping him (has been burned by injuries and shallow D in the past). There is also a lot of talk that Nesterov wants to play in Russia next year, though Nesterov’s agent debunked that. The debunking worked, as Friedman said teams were originally leery of acquiring him due to the thought he’d bolt for Russia next year.

As for the thought that Nesterov’s move opens the door for Koekkoek now, yes, I think that’s the case, but I thought that was the case when Carle was bought out after Koekkoek wizzed by him on the playoff depth chart (or was that a dream?). Koekkoek hasn’t been recalled as of yet, but there’s no reason to bring him up so he can just sit on St. Pete Beach during the All-Star break. Leave him in sunny Syracuse over the weekend, then bring him up for Boston next week. There's plenty of time for the beach later.

It could also open the door for the AHL’s leading scoring defenseman, Matt Taormina, but everyone seems to forget he exists until they see his point-per-game-plus totals.

(Aside: How can a team be so desperate for a puckmoving defenseman yet not even give Taormina a look? What is a last-place team protecting? This is reminiscent of Tambellini last year doing everything to get a recall except, apparently, giving Tampa Bay his phone number.)

Yzerman said Nesterov’s trade was “mostly” roster related; that they like what they’ve seen from righties Witkowski and Dotchin. That could be part of it, yes, definitely. Witkowski as a 6/7 makes sense, though I think he helps the organization more as a captain in Syracuse. I don’t know that he’d be claimed if waived again, but I have a feeling we’ll probably find out before the year’s done. Whenever Witkowski gets praised for his play he’s in the pressbox or Syracuse two games later. There’s not a lot of room to grow for him, but he’s showing well right now and plays his role near perfectly. He’s following JP Cote, Mike Angelidis, and others in that role before him. Witkowski's got a special set of skills (Witko/WMU "Taken" spinoff reference - look it up), but putting his carry-on in the overhead bin shouldn't be one of them. #WitSuitcase

In the meantime, Syracuse has Racine – a physical defenseman to use in Dotchin and Witkowski’s absence. We have Racine slotting in around the No. 25 spot in our soon-to-be-released mid-term prospect rankings. In other words, we feel slightly better about getting the sixth rounder than we do Racine turning into a top-4 defenseman, and really that’s not a slight against him. It really isn’t. He just doesn’t have a lot of upside, and joins the crowd of potential third-pair defensemen in the future. In today’s professional hockey – in which moving the puck is your lifeblood – if you don’t produce at least a little you don’t last long. Dotchin, specifically, has made great strides in this area to get himself NHL ready.

Dotchin has indeed played well and drawn praise from the coaching staff, but 1) He's nowhere close to the 10-game mark when call-ups start settling in (or out), and 2) The staff also had good things to say about Bournival, Dumont, Peca, Erne, Vermin, Gourde, and others before shipping them back to Syracuse. I expect the same for Dotchin in the coming weeks, but he's still developing; he'll be back.

Looking Ahead

At the end of the day, I think this move was about intentionally moving Nesterov out of the lineup and at least getting something for him. I thought he was a waiver candidate to begin the season, so to get a sixth and AHL depth for him was a huge plus. The move frees up space for Koekkoek, and Bowness may be forced to play him now. If a young player is going to be allowed to make mistakes, at least have it be someone with a projected reward at the end. Yzerman did say, then repeated, that Koekkoek is a part of the Lightning's future. We haven't seen that proven in NHL playing time yet, but here's another chance.

Friedman also mentioned the Nesterov move could be the tip of the iceberg for the Lightning. Yzerman has to re-identify the core and use the deadline to jettison a bad contract or two to a buyer desperate for help. (Filppula’s played well, but he and his contract are not part of the future, and deadline buyers will buy). It’s not time for a complete overhaul, but it’s time to confirm who is and who is not part of the future – on the ice and in the checkbook – and start reorganizing the puzzle pieces. And that’s not exclusive of trying to win games and sneak into the playoffs.

For the record, my primary core includes Hedman, Vasilevskiy, Stamkos, Kucherov, and Drouin. Secondary: Stralman, Palat. Priority prospects: Point, Stephens, Cirelli, with Howden, Joseph, and Raddysh close-by. The forward depth is deep enough that one may go, though, if that’s what it takes to get a No. 3 defenseman who can grow with the primary core.

Yzerman made one player trade in the 2016 calendar year (DeAngelo). There could be a lot in 2017.

NOTE: Favorite Nesterov memory... the Lightning's social media person saying the Lightning drafted Nesterov a round before they actually did. They had that one queued up and apparently felt good about him being there in the fifth round.