Defense-desperate Oilers land rights to Nikita Nikitin as hunt for blueliners heats up

Nikita Nikitin (Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Nikita Nikitin (Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Edmonton Oilers on Friday tried to get a head start on what promises to be a desperate, league-wide off-season search for capable blueliners by acquiring a negotiating rights window with Blue Jackets defenseman Nikita Nikitin.

There was no immediate word on what Oilers GM Craig MacTavish surrendered to land the rights to Nikitin, but given that the 28-year-old will be an unrestricted free agent in a couple of weeks, it won’t be much. Nikitin has size (6-foot-4, 223 pounds), but the Russian isn’t a physical threat and was a third-pairing d-man for Columbus last year, averaging just 17:06 of ice time and posting two goals and 15 points in 66 games. In 2011-12, his first year with the Jackets after being dealt from St. Louis, he amassed more than twice that amount of offense (seven goals and 32 points in 54 games), but if he does sign with Edmonton, Oilers fans shouldn’t expect a return to those totals.

Nikitin earned $2.5 million in 2013-14 and in a weak free agent market, he’ll get some type of raise. MacTavish clearly wants to avoid the inevitable inflation of a player’s worth that occurs when free agency kicks off; that’s not to say he’ll have to give Nikitin $4 million a season, but he will have to offer him enough to forego free agency. Edmonton has more than enough salary cap space – nearly $26.5 million, in fact –with which to be generous, and with journeyman blueliner and UFA Mark Fraser likely to move on, Nikitin would shore up their final pairing.

MacTavish understands how difficult it will be to bring in a top-tier defenseman this summer – and when you can’t do that, you do the next best thing and bolster the blueline from the bottom end. If he can get Nikitin’s name on a contract before the UFA frenzy begins July 1, he’ll have done just that.