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Nikita Nesterov takes advantage of Lightning opportunity

 
What was initially expected to be a short call-up from Syracuse for Nikita Nesterov could be a long-term move, after defenseman Radko Gudas had knee surgery earlier this week. [Getty Images]
What was initially expected to be a short call-up from Syracuse for Nikita Nesterov could be a long-term move, after defenseman Radko Gudas had knee surgery earlier this week. [Getty Images]
Published Jan. 9, 2015

TAMPA — Lightning coach Jon Cooper didn't get a full appreciation for defenseman Nikita Nesterov's first two games when he was watching him live.

The perspective came only after Cooper broke down the film and saw the nuances from the 21-year-old Russian — how he would break up a play on defense and be effective on offense five seconds later.

"He was always up in the play," Cooper said. "His gaps were terrific. He can really shoot a puck. He was just aware all over the ice."

The Lightning is counting on Nesterov to keep developing. What was initially expected to be a short callup from Syracuse could be a long-term move, after defenseman Radko Gudas had knee surgery this week. Gudas will miss the rest of the regular season, giving Nesterov a chance to prove he belongs in the NHL.

"I was looking for the opportunity, and I got it," Nesterov said, with goalie Evgeni Nabokov translating. "I want to take advantage of it."

Nesterov's opportunity came after an offseason of hard work.

The 6-foot, 183-pound Nesterov had four goals and 12 assists at Syracuse last season. He said he didn't initially feel comfortable in his first season away from Russia. His teammates noticed.

"Last year he wasn't talking much in English," said forward Cedric Paquette, who played with Nesterov at Syracuse last season. "He didn't want to go out with the boys. Now in practice, he talks. You can see that he wants to learn. He wants to play in the NHL."

Nesterov said he improved his work ethic heading into his second season. He took English classes over the summer to communicate better with his teammates.

"Now I'm able to understand pretty much everything, what the coach is saying and what the guys are saying on and off the ice," Nesterov said. "Before that, it was kind of blurry."

By growing more comfortable with the language, Nesterov has improved on the ice. With three goals and 11 assists to start the season in Syracuse, he had almost as many points through 32 games as he did in the 54 he played last year.

He was named to the AHL's All-Star team as one of the league's top defensemen and earned the call to the Lightning last month. He slid to break up a two-on-one in his NHL debut and is plus-one through his first two games.

"I think he's very calm out there," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "He doesn't seem nervous at all. He's making the simple plays."

Teammates are already praising Nesterov's ability to contribute on offense and defense. Paquette said he also brings a physical edge, which could provide the toughness the Lightning needs with Gudas out.

"Now, especially with the loss of Gudas, we need guys to be able to step in," Cooper said. "He's clearly proven he had that ability."

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.