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Now that the NHL Draft has come to a conclusion, that means free agency is the next big task facing Ray Shero and co. While the draft was about building for the future, free agency will present the opportunity for the Devils to fill some of the holes to help their roster immediately. Of those needs will be improving defense, which has been a theme of these profiles over the course of the last month.
Aside from needing a top-pair defenseman, the Devils will need to improve their defensive depth as well. There aren’t a ton good depth options available this year, but there is one surprise candidate that should be of interest to Ray Shero come July 1st and that would be Nikita Nesterov. Nesterov was facing restricted free agency, but as Elliotte Friedman reported last week, he will become an unrestricted free agent after Montreal chose not give him a qualifying offer.
Nesterov becomes one of the more intriguing names on the free agent market this offseason. He finished with 17 points in 48 games and while that may not be all that impressive, he had a pretty good season between Tampa Bay and Montreal.
For the year, Nesterov had a 54.3% Corsi For, which ranks 13th in the NHL for defensemen with 500+ minutes on the season. He was also a great shot generator and suppressor. For the year, he averaged 58.5 shot attempts per 60 minutes, which was a top-50 mark in the league. He also averaged 49.2 shot attempts against per 60 minutes, which was twelfth-best in the league. Nesterov’s Relative Corsi For% was +3.3% on the year, which was slightly better than Kevin Shattenkirk and just a shade below Brett Pesce. Nesterov may not be of the quality of those two defensemen, but he can more than hold his own when on the ice.
Nesterov’s season is not a flash in the pan, either. Since he came into the league in 2014, he has 52.6% Corsi For, which is a top-40 mark in the league for defensemen with 1000+ minutes. He’s allowed 51.3 shot attempts against per 60 minutes while generating 56.8 shot attempts per 60 minutes. Granted, Nesterov has been quite sheltered over that time span. He’s seen 42% of his shifts start in the offensive zone on face-offs. That being said, zone starts don’t have much of an effect on a player’s shot metrics, so it goes without saying that Nesterov has been quite effective in his time in the NHL. You’re just not going to want him out there in a shutdown defensive role.
Besides his positive shot metrics, Nesterov also has some offensive upside to his game. He only had 17 points this season, but also only played in 48 games. Over an 82 game stretch, that’s good for 29 points, which would’ve been the second-best mark on the Devils this past season. For his career, he’s averaged 20.5 points per 82 games, so while he’s not a dynamic offensive defenseman, he’ll be able to provide the Devils with some help in their transition game they’ve been looking for on the back end, especially on their lower pais.
It’s a bit confusing as to why Montreal decided not to qualify Nesterov. His underlying numbers suggest he can hold his own on defense while playing regular minutes and has some offensive ability. His situation reminds me a bit of David Schlemko’s in the 2015 offseason. The Devils could be looking at a similar low-risk, high-reward type of deal with Nesterov. Ray Shero can sign him to a cheap one-year deal and they’d reap the rewards as they did with Schlemko.
Nesterov won’t be the answer to the Devils problems on the back end, but he can provide New Jersey with some much needed depth that they’ve been missing on their blue line. Aside from needing an elite top-pair defenseman, the Devils need defensive depth as well, and Nesterov would be a good place to look once the free agent market opens in just a few days. He can defend, has some offensive ability, and best of all, he’s only 24-years old. He would be the perfect asset for what is still an ongoing rebuild in Newark and potentially one of the missing pieces to help make New Jersey competitive in 2017-18.
Advanced Stats from Hockey Analysis