The Oilers were granted permission to talk to the pending unrestricted free agent, who, for the moment, still remains a Blue Jacket. It’s slightly unorthodox, especially with the recent trend of teams—and by teams, I mean New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow—acquiring players’ rights immediately prior to the start of free agency for mid-round draft picks in the hopes of signing them.
While this particular “deal” smells like a trade, it will likely only become an official one—whereby assets will actually change hands—should the Oilers and Nikitin get anywhere in their discussions. At that point it is presumed Edmonton will send something Columbus’ way as an unofficial thank-you.
Technically, if the Oilers and Nikitin do reach an agreement, both parties can simply wait until July 1—when Nikitin becomes a free agent—and then sign their contract, without the Blue Jackets getting anything in return except egg on their face. However, this exclusive window was granted late last week out of good faith, so it only makes sense that Edmonton would return the favor.
And, contrary to popular belief, teams are allowed to talk to pending free agents prior to July 1—they just can't sign any contracts. According to the new collective bargaining agreement, this interview period begins the day after the NHL entry draft, but no later than June 25 (h/t to The Globe and Mail's James Mirtle). So, the only thing that’s really new here is the window of exclusivity, which will close come June 25.
Seeing as the Oilers’ senior vice president of hockey operations is Scott Howson—the one-time Columbus general manager who acquired Nikitin once upon a time for Kris Russell—the backstory begins to form. It becomes clearer why the Jackets would let the Oilers talk to Nikitin without any compensation—as a favor to Howson, whose former team is now finding success—and why the Oilers would want Nikitin.
Whether or not that interest in Nikitin is justified is another question altogether.
While Nikitin has a big body—6’4”, 223 lbs—he doesn’t use it effectively, and he could stand to be more consistent. His subpar play has led to a decrease in ice time from 23:34 per game in 2011-12 to 17:06 this past season, just seventh among Blue Jackets defensemen. All six above him are either under contract for next season or restricted free agents.
His decreased ice time has logically led to decreased production, dropping from 32 points in 54 games in 2011-12 to to 15 points in 66 games this season—which should be all the convincing you need that Columbus doesn’t want him back, in case the Blue Jackets letting the Oilers talk to him wasn’t enough.
Meanwhile, the fifth-round pick the Blue Jackets could have gotten (if Snow’s recent deal for Dan Boyle is anything to go by)? It could still materialize if the Oilers and Nikitin come to an agreement. And even if it doesn’t, it's not a big loss.
While there’s always a chance the Blue Jackets can draft a serviceable player with that pick, there’s a better chance that they don’t. It’s particularly interesting in this case that Nikitin, himself—the same player that the Blue Jackets are trying to deal—was a fifth-round pick back in 2004.
So, while the Blue Jackets are risking losing Nikitin for nothing here, it’s not a big risk—they likely would be losing him anyway come July 1. They might as well do another team in the opposite conference a minor solid on the off chance it pays dividends in the form of future considerations.
This may not be a win-win situation in the traditional sense, but it’s far from a loss for the Blue Jackets, especially if the only thing they’re losing is a defenseman they had no use for anyway.