What to Expect from Nikita Nesterov

The Tampa Bay Lightning recalled defenseman Nikita Nesterov from the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League today, vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman announced.

Nesterov, 5-foot-11, 199 pounds, has played in 32 games with the Crunch this season, recording three goals and 14 points with at plus-4 rating and 26 penalty minutes. He leads all Syracuse blue-liners for goals and points while ranking tied for second for plus/minus.

A native of Chelyabinsk, Russia, Nesterov has played in 86 career AHL games, all with the Crunch during the previous two seasons. He has registered seven goals and 30 points with 65 penalty minutes.

Nesterov was selected by the Lightning in the fifth round, 148th overall, of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

What to Expect:

No player on the Syracuse Crunch has improved more since last season than Nesterov. There are two things to take away from that statement: Nesterov’s improvement and just how bad he was last year.

Last season was Nesterov’s first in North America after playing in the KHL. He looked like a little brother trying to keep up with big brother’s friends. He was rag dolled, lost, and consistently made bad decisions with the puck.

Considering Nesterov was drafted as a puck-moving defenseman known for his skating and smarts, red flags started flying as early as last Christmas.

This year has been a different story, and it really started in Nashville at the prospects tournament. He struggled early in the tournament, falling at inopportune times and losing board battles, until he was put on the power play and absolutely cannoned a center point one-timer for a goal. From that point on, you could see his confidence rise – and sometimes that’s all it takes.

Nesterov has continued to progress this season in Syracuse, where he has played like an AHL top-pair defenseman. A left-handed shot, he plays both the left and right sides, which makes him enticing to Tampa Bay, who recalled Nesterov over the right-handed Luke Witkowski despite Witkowski being one of the last cuts of Lightning camp and JP Cote, who played a decent portion of last season with the Lightning.

He also played both the left and right sides with Russia in International play. He was a minute-eater for Russia in the World Junior Championships two years ago.

Nesterov’s increased comfort level with all aspects of the North American game, on and off the ice, has been apparent all year. His poise with the puck is the most improved, which has resulted in better decisions and up-ice passes to ignite offense. Confidence has led to Nesterov being quicker to jump into rushes and he likes to present himself as a one-timer option frequently. He’s scored a few game-winners like that this year. As he did in Nashville, he’s frequently parked at the center point on power plays for his one-timer, which isn’t Zdeno Cara-heavy, but can leave some bruises. He quarterbacks Syracuse’s No. 1 power play unit.

The key to Nesterov adapting to the NHL will be just as much mental as physical, though both will take increased effort.

Mentally, Nesterov has to carry his confidence with him to the NHL. If he plays timid, he’ll be exposed early and often. Physically, Nesterov still struggles along the wall with bigger forwards. He needs a couple more offseasons of weight training, but his leverage points have to improve, too. The effort is there to continue to improve.

If Nesterov can be quick on puck retrieval, win his fair share of battles, and move the puck up the ice quickly like he has all year in Syracuse, he’ll be fine in limited minutes. Hopefully he gets a chance to use his shot off the rush or off the weakside. That could produce another boost in confidence, which could lead to even bigger and better things.

If everything comes together, Nesterov projects as a 4/5 defenseman who skates well and moves the puck adequately. His on-ice intelligence has always been a strong-point (aside from the first ¾ of last season) and he can put up a few points if chances are there. So much will depend on getting stronger.

Strengths: Skating, shot, puck movement, hockey IQ
Weaknesses: Strength, size, wall play

Off the wall: Nesterov remains one of the all-time draft pick Twitter fails in NHL history as the Lightning’s social media person at that time tweeted out Tampa Bay picked Nesterov a round before he was actually taken.