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Photo Credit: Andrew Nelles/USA Today Sports

‘Moscowtown’ adds to its ranks with savvy Nesterov signing

Yes, in case you couldn’t tell, the title of this piece includes a portmanteau of “Moscow” and one of Calgary’s most favoured nicknames, “Cowtown.” (A portmanteau is formed when the sounds and meanings of two words are combined into one).

27-year-old defenseman Nikita Nesterov, signed by the Calgary Flames on Friday to a one year, $700,000 contract, represents the latest addition to Cowtown’s ever-growing community of Russian players and prospects.

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After going between 2007 and 2019 without a single Russian-born player ever donning a Flames sweater, general manager Brad Treliving has spent much of the last two years introducing over a half-dozen of them to Calgary.

Sure, the Flames picked Rushan Rafikov and Pavel Karnaukhov in the 2013 and 2015 drafts, but neither player has shown much interest in playing for the team that controls their NHL rights in perpetuity (due to a lapse in the NHL’s transfer agreement with the Russian federation). Calgary’s selection of Dmitry Zavgorodniy in the seventh round of the 2018 draft has already proven to be much more fruitful: in March 2019, he became the first Russian player to sign a contract with the Flames since Andrei Taratukhin in 2006.

Later in 2019, the Flames signed goaltender Artyom Zagidulin and defenseman Alexander Yelesin to NHL contracts, bringing them both overseas to play for the Stockton Heat. Yelesin even registered four games with the big club, breaking the 12-year Russian drought in Calgary. In the 2019 draft, the Flames snagged Russian centre Ilya Nikolayev in the third round; this year, they selected defenseman Yan Kuznetsov in the second round and goaltender Daniil Chechelev in the fourth round.

Move over, “C of Red” — the Red Army is on its way, and Nesterov will likely be its first member to join the Flames on a full-time basis. He’s a left-handed defenseman with plenty of experience playing on both sides of the blue line.

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“He’s played a lot of right side. He’s very comfortable over there,” Treliving told Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson on Friday. “And that would be the plan for us.”

Drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the fifth round, 148th overall, of the 2011 draft, Nesterov suited up for 132 regular season games with the Bolts and the Montreal Canadiens between 2014 and 2017, scoring nine goals and 33 points. He added another goal and seven points in 28 playoff games.

Nesterov left North America in 2017, signing a three-year deal with CSKA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League. Those three years turned out to be extremely successful for Nesterov: he captured a gold medal at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea as part of the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” hockey team; he reached the Gagarin Cup final with CSKA in 2018, losing to Ak Bars Kazan, before winning the Cup over Avangard Omsk in 2019; finally, he was named captain of CSKA for the 2019–20 season, which was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, Nesterov has a chance to join a competitive Calgary team and form a sort of portmanteau of his own with one of the Flames’ other defensemen. On paper, it seems like the most logical fit for Nesterov might be beside rookie Juuso Valimaki on the team’s third pairing; after all, Nesterov will be one of the Flames’ more seasoned players who could serve as a mentor for the young Finn.

It’s also possible that Nesterov will see some time on the Flames’ power play units. Four of his nine NHL goals have come on the man-advantage and, historically, he’s seen deployments heavily slanted towards the offensive zone. Nesterov boasts an impressive shot from the point.

Nesterov’s listed height of 5’11” is a little deceiving, since he weighs in the vicinity of 200 pounds. He packs a lot of beef into a smaller frame and he has used that density to his advantage in his past NHL stops, throwing 222 hits in his 132 games.

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Aggressive physically and offensively, Nesterov checks off many boxes for the Flames at a very cheap salary. He’ll compete with Oliver Kylington, Alex Petrovic, and Connor Mackey in training camp, but, on a one-way deal, Nesterov appears to have the inside track to snag the final spot at right defense in the team’s opening-day lineup.

If Nesterov finds success in “Moscowtown,” hopefully it’s a sign of things to come.