Nikita Nikitin did many things well after he was traded to the Blue Jackets in November, but one of his more admirable decisions was made off the ice.
He recovered from an ankle injury which he suffered in a January game at Joe Louis Arena, only to return and get his thumb banged up, forcing him to wear a splint. It was uncomfortable – and sometimes downright painful – but with the club already missing several key pieces, there wasn’t a chance the big Russian blue liner was coming out of the lineup.
Little things like that add up and contribute to a winning culture, and the buy-in is becoming more apparent. Offensive production and time on ice are measurable, tangible qualities, but the willingness to be a good teammate is invaluable within the locker room.
The total package Nikitin brought to his 54 games with Columbus last season was the catalyst behind his new two-year, $4.3 million contract extension signed just days before he was scheduled to be a restricted free agent. From the start of Nikitin’s Blue Jackets career, both parties have been pleased with the results of a hockey deal that GM Scott Howson said has worked out for everyone.
“It was a tough trade because Kris Russell really cared about the Blue Jackets,” Howson told BlueJackets.com. “And that wasn't an easy day, but it was something we felt we had to do. We were hoping that we'd get this from Nikita, and we thought it was there. We didn't expect he'd have all those minutes, let alone how quickly he did it.
“He pretty much (played big minutes) from the first night he paired with Fedor Tyutin against Winnipeg, and he never looked back. He had his peaks and valleys but he was pretty good for the rest of the year. He certainly met expectations, and he met our hopeful expectations, as well.”
After playing sparingly in St. Louis and struggling to find solid footing within the organization, Nikitin jumped head-on into a new challenge in Columbus. He made his Blue Jackets debut on Nov. 12 against Winnipeg, picked up an assist on the game-winning goal, and logged just south of 25 minute of ice time on the team’s top pair.
Was it an initial rush of adrenaline? Possibly, but Nikitin seemed to improve the more he played. His minutes increased, responsibility augmented and, to the pleasure of his coaches, offensive production spiked, as well – and much of the success can be attributed to playing alongside a fellow Russian in Tyutin.
“I really liked how the chemistry was almost instantly there,” head coach Todd Richards told BlueJackets.com. “I'm sure it was one of those things where you look for something in transition, and Niki having a fellow countryman definitely made the adjustment a lot easier.
“You're more comfortable, you have a little more confidence and the communication is a little bit easier. Some of the credit here also has to go to Fedor, as well - I think he really helped Niki and made him comfortable so Niki's play could take over.”
The stellar season wasn’t without its share of hardships. In January, Nikitin left a game in Detroit with a knee injury after he collided violently into the end boards with Henrik Zetterberg. The recovery period was weeks long and became a really trying time for Nikitin, who only wanted to be on the ice with his teammates.
No sooner did Nikitin return to the Blue Jackets lineup, did Tyutin broke his hand and ended up missing the remainder of the season. It forced Nikitin to step out of his comfort zone, Richards said, and turned out to be beneficial for him as he adjusted to his new team and the city.
“He wants to play,” Richards said. “Those are the players you want to have. It would have been very easy for him to sit out, and Tyutin was along the same lines. He was visibly upset when he injured his hand and had to stay out of the lineup.
“He's certainly more comfortable with Tyutin. His play wasn't the same when he was without Tyutin back there, but that's a compliment to Fedor and how they played as a pair. Going into this year, I don't know what the combinations are going to be. Through training camp and exhibition games, you're always mixing up your lineup and trying different things, but you can't disregard what he and Fedor have done in the past.”
With his new contract and peace of mind that Columbus is now his home, Nikitin can focus on what’s ahead. The Blue Jackets have seen the level of play that Nikitin is capable of reaching, and since he has been entrusted with a large role, the expectation has been established as the 2012-13 season approaches.
But ultimately, the decision of how great Nikitin can be as a player and where his career heads from this point rests with one guy.
“He’s definitely set the bar,” Richards said. “But I also think there's more to his game. You never want to set limits or set the bar too high, but there are things I saw out of him last year that I'm expecting to see this year.
“We have to get him on that consistent path where he's playing at a real high level every night. Whether it's with Fedor or with somebody else, when he's playing at a high level, he's a very, very good defenseman.”
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