Of all the defense prospects in the Tampa Bay Lightning system heading into the 2014-15 season, Nikita Nesterov might have had the least buzz surrounding him.
He was coming off a ho-hum first North American campaign where he scored 16 points in 54 games and at times struggled in all three zones on the significantly smaller ice of the War Memorial, especially compared to what he'd been used to in his native Russia playing in the KHL for Chelyabinsk Traktor.
But after being called up to the Lightning mid-season, Nesterov established himself as a capable puck-mover and a willing shooter from the blue line, giving the Lightning a much-needed dimension they had previously lacked, playing his way into a regular role as a 7th or sometimes even 6th defensemen even as the Lightning played deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Here's how the panel ranked Nikita Nesterov:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Mike Gallimore||GeoFitz4||Brett Frieman|
Previous Ranks: #21 (2013)
After ranking #21 on our countdown in 2013 following joining the Lightning organization officially on an entry-level contract, Nesterov fell off our list completely in 2014 following an uneven first year with the Syracuse Crunch. The first half of his second year in the AHL showed some improvement from the year before, but it wasn't until a late December call-up in a blowout win over the Buffalo Sabres that Nesterov really made an impact. He immediately added some puck-moving and long-range shooting ability to the Lightning lineup, elements they had been lacking all year long and traits that kept him in the Lightning lineup even after the defense group got healthy.
Mixing in mostly as a 7th defensemen but occasionally playing up the lineup as a regular defenseman, Nesterov chipped in with 7 points in 27 regular season games with the Lightning playing primarily with Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison as head coach Jon Cooper went to a 7D/rotating alignment more often than not with Nesterov dressed.
While Nesterov isn't the most physical of defensively sound guy on the back-end, he did display a highly developed skill to read the play, exit the zone cleanly, and move the puck up ice for Tampa Bay's talented forwards to go to work. In his limited minutes, he ended up 6th on the Lightning in raw Corsi For % (54.0%) and was rated favorably by nearly every objective measure of puck possession we have available. Some of that, of course, comes from playing next to Stralman and Garrison, but Nesterov proved a capable partner for either guy and wasn't just a passenger on his pairing.
From Bolt Prospects' 2015 Supplemental Rankings, where they noted Nesterov's sudden developmental growth spurt:
One of the greatest developmental spikes of this past season came from Russian-born offensive defenseman Nikita Nesterov. Nesterov showed dramatic improvement in his skating and defensive game in his second year of North American pro hockey en route to earning AHL All Star honors and eventually winning a spot in Tampa Bay in the second half of the year. He'll never be mistaken for Chris Pronger, but Nesterov's ability to push the pace offensively and his shoot-first mentality on the power play mean he's a good candidate to put up nice offensive numbers as a third pair defenseman in the NHL.
One element that Nesterov brought to the Lightning game was a trigger-happy sensibility on the power play -- for a unit that has struggled to consistently generate shots over the past few seasons, this was a very good thing to see. Though he got just barely over 14 minutes of power play time during his 27 regular season games, he fired the puck on net at every opportunity, earning himself a bigger role as the playoffs got rolling.
His first Stanley Cup Playoff goal should serve as a good example of what the Lightning will hope for more of in the future:
Nesterov is entering the third and final year of his ELC this fall, where he'll get paid a bargain salary of $742,500 per General Fanager. Depending on how his 2014-15 season goes, he might be in line for a major pay bump as an RFA negotiating an extension during the season or sometime next summer.