Columbus Blue Jackets
Traded D Kris Russell to St. Louis in exchange for D Nikita Nikitin (Nov. 10, 2011)
St. Louis Blues
Traded D Nikita Nikitin to Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for D Kris Russell (Nov. 10, 2011)
Within days of calling Blue Jackets' team president Mike Priest about acquiring the services of that team's former coachand still on the Columbus payrollKen Hitchcock, Blues GM Doug Armstrong called the Ohio capital once again. This time, he could set his sights lower on his Central Division rival's hierarchy, and called instead their GM, Scott Howson. A challenge trade was soon consummated, with a pair of pre-peak defensemen changing hands.
For the Blue Jackets, while acquiring the player who is both older and less experienced, this can be considered an upside play. The undersized Russell was not seen as part of the solution to their horrid start to the season (five points in their first 14 games) as he saw his ice time fall game by game until he had been relegated to the press box for both of his last two contests as a member of the Jackets. The return from suspension of James Wisniewski cut into his expected time on the power play, while the emergence of Aaron Johnson (with whom he was regularly paired) and Grant Clitsome as blueline contributors further chipped away at his utility to the team that once drafted him in the third round and had taken the "We are Family" move of trading for his twin brother, Ryan, a forward, this past offseason.
Greasing the skids to the trade was the defensive Russell's contract, which had him costing $1.3 million against the cap both this season and next. Nikitin, on the other hand, carries a cap hit of $600,000 and will become a restricted free agent next summer. While the 25-year-old Russian may cost at least as much as Russell next season, the Jackets might as well save some cash in a season that has long ago gone off the rails.
One critical area where this trade looks to improve the Blue Jackets is on the penalty kill, currently ranked 29th in the NHL, at a paltry 74.2% success rate. While a team's best penalty killer is always its goalie, until Columbus can find Steve Mason some suitable competition (Curtis Sanford, anyone? A healthy Mark Dekanic?), they can still work on upgrading the defenders in front of the crease. Kris Russell almost never played when a man down. Nikitin, when not sitting in the Blues' press box, has shown himself to be an adequate performer, as a big body on the blue line when killing penalties. Nikitin's advanced numbers on the penalty kill have not been impressive thus far on the still-young season; then again, his advanced numbers at even strength were worse (relative Corsi of -17.1 on the PK and -23.9 on even strength and the worst relative plus-minus on the Blues), but some of that may have been on the shoulders of Halak, performing horribly behind Nikitin during the first six games. It is true that the Russian was the worst blueliner during that poor stretch, but that small sample should not have been used as a basis to judge a player who had shone (if not all that brightly) as a rookie last season. In fact, the former standout of Avangard Omsk was not given a chance under Hitchcock, having not dressed for the Blues since October 30. The fact that the Blues having begun to turn things around coincided both with his benching as well as the ascendance of Brian Elliott in net should not be seen as an indictment on Nikitin's abilities or inherent quality as an NHL defender.
Instead, Hitch seemed happy to bring on board a player he was already familiar with from his stint as a coach in Columbus. Russell had averaged approximately 4.6 GVT/82 games in the three seasons in which he shared an employer with his new/old coach. Not phenomenal, but reliable. VUKOTA saw more of the same, if not somewhat more, projecting 4.8 GVT for the Red Deer native, over 65.2 games (6 GVT/82 games) in 2011-12. Since joining St. Louis, Russell has assumed the point on the second power play unit while being paired with both Roman Polak and Kevin Shattenkirk (Hitchcock still experimenting with linemates), and has already paid dividends for the Blues, with Russell scoring twice in his first three games for his new team.*
*On the other hand, Nikitin, paired consistently with Fedor Tyutin, has contributed three assists in his first three games in Columbus, during which the team has accumulated three points, after gaining only five over their first 15 games. Just saying.
As Hitchcock familiarizes himself with his new charges, it must be somewhat reassuring to see another familiar face on the bench, joining his old swashbucklers Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, both relics of a more ancient past.
What may have been lost in this trade is the relative experience level of the two players involved. Although it may seem as if Russell is now a grizzled veteran, and Nikita a novice, the former is actually 11 months younger than the latter. Drafted in 2004, Nikitin spent six seasons working on his craft in Russia's top league before finally agreeing to an entry level deal with St. Louis in June, 2010. Entering this season, Russell had 276 games of NHL experience under his belt, dating back to the 2007-08 season. In contrast, Nikitin had played in only 41 games, all last season. In spite of the relative certainty that the newest Blue brings to the rink, this deal may turn out to be a good one for Columbus, especially if the seeming chemistry developed with his countrymate Tyutin can hold up. His new coach, Scott Arniel, admitted as much after his first game, as reported in the Columbus Dispatch, noting, "We put him with 'Toots' [Fedor Tyutin], the two Russians together, so if there were any issues, he could talk it over with him."
If protected properly (and we have no reason to believe that Hitchcock will play fast and loose with his matchups), Russell should be a useful piece for St. Louis. His presence should lift the Blues ' power play out of the league basement as they fight for a playoff berth. However, given more regular playing time, NN will provide a lot more utility in Columbus, able to play in all situations and providing more stability to a blue line that has already seen 10 different members in 17 games. His presence will allow Jackets coach Scott Arniel to slow down the development of John Moore, expected to be a key piece of the team's future, while occasionally resting a more one-dimensional asset like Aaron Johnson. Ultimately, this trade can be a win-win proposition, if Russell plays an important role in getting the Blues into the playoffs while Nikitin logs heavy minutes and helps prevent the overuse of less talented and/or ready players.
Writer's note: I have no special affinity for either the Blues or the Blue Jackets (nor the color blue). Although both teams have featured prominently in multiple recent columns, it should be noted that they have been the most active and interesting from a roster management perspective. If you would like to read a more in-depth analysis of roster shuffling on a team not yet covered, please feel free to leave a comment here, email me or find me on Twitter @RAWagman.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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