Top 25 Under 25: #21 Nikita Nesterov

The Syracuse Crunch -- AHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning -- will have a prominent group of Eastern European blueliners next season, led in part by Russian defenseman Nikita Nesterov.

Nikita Nesterov has arrived in North America.

After some uncertainty about his ability to come over following his draft season (2011), Nesterov was signed to a 3-year entry-level contract by the Tampa Bay Lightning in April.

He was selected 16th overall in the CHL Import Draft in 2010 by the WHL's Tri-City Americans, but was never released by his KHL parent club, which prevented him from coming over to North America earlier in his career. Instead, he's continued to develop in Russia and is poised to make the leap this year.

Here's how the panel ranked him:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clark Brooks Clare Austin Patti McDonald Mike Gallimore
19 20 21 NR 19 22

Drafted out of Russia in 2011 (5th round, 148th overall), he's been a member of the KHL Traktor Chelyabinsk organization (his hometown team) since 2009-2010, making the jump from the MHL to the KHL this past year. Here are Nesterov's career regular season statistics with them:

As you can see, while Nesterov does possess some offensive tools, his production in the MHL (top feeder league for the KHL) has so far, not translated to the higher league. After scoring 31 points in 41 games in the MHL in 2011-2012 (.75 PPG), he didn't record a single point with the big club in 35 games in 2012-2013. Whether this is a function of his usage or role on Traktor Chelyabinsk is hard to suss out without some of the advanced statistics tracked in North America, but his time on ice per game was just 12:21 in the regular season and it dropped to 10:42 in the playoffs, so there is reason to believe he was being sheltered a bit in his first year in the top league.

As an interesting aside, Nesterov did play some forward for Chelyabinsk in the KHL playoffs this past season, centering one of the bottom lines and, by all accounts, impressing for a guy playing his first ever professional season in the 2nd best hockey league in the world and playing out of position:

While it's important not to overstate Nesterov playing forward -- Nesterov is not a forward, nor should anyone's expectation of him be that he can or will play forward for the Tampa Bay Lightning organization -- it does imply versatility and good hockey sense, as well as the trust of his KHL coaching staff.

Nesterov, like many Tampa Bay Lightning players and prospects, has been very busy this offseason in preparation for his North American professional debut, almost certainly with the AHL Syracuse Crunch. He recently attended the rookie camp in Coral Springs with prospects from the Lightning, Boston Bruins, Nashville Predators, and Florida Panthers, and he scored a goal in a 7-4 win over the Nashville rookie squad.

While he's not dead-lifting 500 lbs. with Gary Roberts and Steven Stamkos, Nesterov has also been doing some "outside the box" training this offseason:

Katilin Sandeno is a former American Olympic swimmer with 2 bronze, 1 silver, and 1 gold medal to her name from the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and the 2004 Olympics in Athens. She was part of the world-record setting American team in the 4 x 200m freestyle relay in Athens, and apparently has been putting a few NHLers through the motions in the pool this summer, as both Nesterov and Belarusian NHLer (and newest member of the Washington Capitals) appeared with her in the above photo from late August.

With 7 defenseman on 1-way contracts for 2013-2014, making the Lightning this year is outside Nesterov's reach, but a good showing in the AHL would improve his chances of cracking the NHL lineup in 2014-2015, perhaps even sooner as an injury call-up with top-league professional experience, something very few Lightning prospects possess.