The Blue Jackets knew they were getting a solid player when they acquired Nikita Nikitin from the St. Louis Blues, but it’s safe to say the defenseman blew expectations out of the water.
He battled through a tough situation in St. Louis, and came to Columbus with a fresh outlook – and it paid off. Nikitin, 25, earned heavy minutes from both Scott Arniel and Todd Richards during the 54 games he played for the Blue Jackets in 2011-12, and quickly became a permanent fixture on a strengthened blue line.
Nikitin officially signed a two-year, $4.3 million contract extension with the Blue Jackets this afternoon, keeping him in the union blue sweater through the 2013-14 season. He was scheduled to become a restricted free agent (RFA) later this week, but GM Scott Howson and Nikitin’s camp both had an interest in agreeing to new deal as soon as possible.
The new deal will buy one year of Nikitin's unrestricted free agency years. Per the terms of the agreement, he will earn $1.8 million next season and $2.5 million in 2013-14.
"We were hoping that we'd get this from him, and we thought it was there," Howson told BlueJackets.com. "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 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."
Nikitin put up 32 points (seven goals, 25 assists) in those 54 games and played primarily with fellow Russian countryman Fedor Tyutin, matching up against the opposition’s top lines and running the point on the power play. Nikitin’s heavy shot coupled with a smooth puck-moving ability stabilized him near the top of the depth chart, and when he returned following an ankle injury suffered in late January, he picked up right where he left off.
The big Russian carried an impressive +4 rating as a Blue Jacket and played nearly 24 minutes per night. He was their horse, and it was easy to see others pick up their play as a result.
Despite losing his regular defense partner to injury for the final month of the season, Nikitin fit in with every Blue Jacket defensemen he was paired with. He recorded his first career multi-goal game on March 30 vs. the Florida Panthers, and showed off his one-timer on several occasions down the stretch. He and Tyutin scored the only two goals in a 2-0 Columbus win against the Colorado Avalanche, a game the Avalanche desperately needed to stay alive in the playoff race.
Regardless of the matchup or situation, Nikitin proved he was able to adapt and excel – making it a slam-dunk to bring him back into the fold on a multi-year deal.
"He's here for two more years in a place where he's comfortable," Howson said. "He's excelled here. (In two years), we'll see where we are after that. If what he did for us last year continues for a full season the next two years, he is going to be paid a lot higher."