Although nobody but Fedor Tyutin knows what Nikita Nikitin thinks or says, mostly due to his lack of English, it was no secret that his counterpart Kris Russell did not want out of Columbus. From the mouth of General Manager Scott Howson at the Season Ticket Holder Q&A and from the snips of articles in the Dispatch as he came back on Sunday as a visiting player, the consensus is the same: Russell wanted to stay in Columbus. When the going gets rough, the trade rumors fly, and it isn’t uncommon for a guy to say he’s had enough and to want to leave for greener pastures (or, perhaps, Blue-r). Russell was given the good fortune, despite his misgivings, of being traded from a cellar dweller to nearly the top of the conference on a streaking hot Blues team.
Since he left and rejoined his first professionalhead coach Ken Hitchcock, the defenseman has seemingly been reborn. The year Hitchcock was fired from Columbus, Russell scored his career-high seven goals. Since then, his defense has improved but his offense has stalled. Perhaps it was a misfire between him and Arniel, although they were touted to be a match made in hockey system heaven, but he never quite took off under Arniel’s guidance. Hitchock, who we all know pitches a certain brand of hockey, apparently has some kind of gift – or maybe, finally, Russell has found his game. Whether it is a newfound confidence from his new position, a clean start, being unfamiliar in his surroundings, or a stroke of good luck, Russell is on fire. Over just nine games in St. Louis, he is 3-1-4 and +6. Plus six. Russell finished with a plus in just one of four seasons in Columbus (-12, -10,+3, -9), possibly due to his status on the bottom pairing, often stuck with guys whose NHL careers have since floundered (Tollefsen, Backman, Stralman, Commodore…). Just last night alone, Russell was credited with three shots and six more attempts blocked. Nine offensive chances, even though none made it through: he is taking chances he previously failed to.
At first the trade looked great. Nikitin was a solid fit on a pair with Tyutin, very quietly adding up five assists while being unnoticeably good (he had no points in seven games while struggling to make the lineup in St. Louis). But over the last few games, the pairing has started to fall apart. On Sunday against St. Louis, Nikitin and Tyutin struggled greatly. Tyutin’s penalties hurt the team and according to St. Louis media outlets, Nikitin’sfoot deflected a Blues shot right to Kris Russell who had an open net to shoot into to tie the game at one. How’s that for karma? In Vancouver, Nikitin was a brutal minus four (bringing him to minus one overall on the season). Hopefully, perhaps, this is a temporary struggle, or it could be the “real” Nikitin coming to play.
It’s still hard to say who “won” the trade, if anybody at all. Sometimes they do just work that way: a win/win. Nikitin has stepped into a role that the Blues were not willing to give him, logging heavy minutes on a top pairing – is that because the defense in Columbus isn’t as good as that in St. Louis? Maybe. Or maybe the change of scenery really has done the both of them some good. Eventually, more than nine games will tell the story, and for Blue Jackets fans the best hope is that it is a win/win. If Nikitin can do a solid shut down job, perhaps stick around longer, and either way relieves the Jackets of the 2.6M salary hit divided over two years they would have owed Russell (hopefully with the intent of creating a roster spot for a matured David Savard, or better) then they have received a good end in the deal. Russell did not turn into what the local newspapers made his potential out to be; he moved the puck but never put up Mike Green-like offensive numbers, much to the chagrin of Jackets fans (and beat writers), but the kid never gave up on Columbus. After his first game in St. Louis, he was asked if it felt good to play in a full building, as opposed to what he came from in Columbus. With the opportunity presented to him to make a backhanded, ugly remark about the club and the city that “raised” him, he simply said: “The fans in Columbus are great. They’re just searching for a winner.”