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Offensive versatility can help Lightning defenseman Nesterov

TAMPA — Of all the adjustments the Lightning has had to make with its injury-riddled lineup, moving defenseman Nikita Nesterov to forward has been an intriguing one.

Nesterov, 23, has looked good as a wing, too, joining J.T. Brown and Michael Bournival in recent games for a formidable fourth line. Nesterov, a gifted skater, is fast on the forecheck and had racked up eight shots in his past four games before being scratched Saturday against the Hurricanes.

"You can't even tell that he's a defenseman," quipped center Vladislav Namestnikov, a fellow Russian.

Nesterov is not a stranger to wing, having played forward during the playoffs in Europe's KHL several years ago. "It's more fun," Nesterov said. But this switch, temporary or not, is not only good for the Lightning but also for Nesterov, who is in a prove-it, one-year, $725,000 deal. Having this type of versatility can only help him, especially with Nesterov struggling to remain a regular on the blue line.

Would Nesterov consider playing forward in future years?

"I don't know," he said. "I like 'D,' too. If it's up to me, it doesn't matter where I play. If I get ice time, it doesn't matter where. I'm comfortable with both."

Nesterov just wants to play. And after being a healthy scratch on defense in four of six games early last month, Nesterov was slated to appear in his fourth straight Saturday. He has earned it.

"He can skate, he's physical, he engages, he's got a good stick," coach Jon Cooper said. "He can do them both at forward and 'D.' He's been kind of a utility guy."

Lightning TV color analyst Brian Engblom, a Stanley Cup-winning defenseman in his playing days, said moving Nesterov to forward has also helped defenseman Slater Koekkoek, who had played in nine straight games. Engblom said Koekkoek doesn't have to look over his shoulder and that allows him to get in a rhythm and play freely.

So can Nesterov. Some of his biggest issues as a defensemen are mental, sometimes misjudging when he should make a play or jump into a rush. Playing forward fits his skill set.

"He likes to be up in the play," Engblom said. "When a defenseman, he plays better when he's got the puck, and he makes some good plays offensively when he's up in the rush, which is probably part of the reason they gave him that chance (at forward).

Engblom laughed: "But maybe he doesn't want to play too good up there if he wants to be a defenseman. Be careful what you wish for."

RIGHT MOVE: Though Cooper said it was an "extremely tough" decision to bench veteran Valtteri Filppula on Wednesday for missing a team meeting, it was the right one. Filppula, the team's most experienced player and only Stanley Cup winner, deserves the benefit of the doubt for a single mistake, sleeping through his alarm Wednesday morning. But by making Filppula a healthy scratch, it sends the right message to younger players.

SLAP SHOTS: Congratulations to forward Brian Boyle and wife Lauren, who are expecting their second child, a daughter, in May. "We're really excited," Boyle said. The Boyles have a son, Declan, 17 months. … Cool moment Saturday morning: former Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier was at Amalie Arena with his son, Gabe, who got a Nikita Kucherov jersey for Christmas. Kucherov signed it after the morning skate.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

Offensive versatility can help Lightning defenseman Nesterov 12/31/16 [Last modified: Saturday, December 31, 2016 9:58pm]
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