By Warren Kozireski —
It has been two-plus years since the Buffalo Sabres made Russian 6’4”, 198 lb. left shot defenseman Nikita Novikov their sixth-round selection in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, and they could not be happier with his development through the first third of his first professional season in North America.
It began when the 20-year-old led all Sabres players in scoring at the Prospect Challenge in September with five assists in three games.
Since he is one of three defensemen on the Rochester Americans with ten or more assists through 27 games (23 played). He is also the only Amerks regular blueliners on the positive side of plus/minus at +7.
“He does a lot of really nice things both defensively and offensively, competitively,” Rochester head coach Seth Appert said. “We know there’s a lot there as a player and it’s going to take time. He’s raw right now, but he works, he’s coachable, he competes, and we really like what that young man has inside of him.”
This AHL level playing against men is not completely new to Novikov. He played 94 games over three seasons with MHL Dynamo Moscow against men when he was 17, 18 and 19 years old—the fourth most in league history for a teenager.
There has been the adjustment to a new continent, a new language and a smaller ice surface, but Novikov uses his extended reach and is learning to use his large frame in the defensive zone more effectively.
“It’s all good, but it’s my first time playing in North America so it’s getting better,” Novikov said, sometimes through his interpreter wife, Arina. “I love playing offense so much. In the beginning (of the season) it was hard with the speed…but now I’m getting used to it and now my speed is better.
“My preparation in camp in Buffalo made me better and now I can skate with more speed.
Having two Russian teammates in fellow Sabres prospects Aleksandr Kisakov and Viktor Neuchev has also helped Novikov with the early transition. Many times, Neuchev and Novikov can be seen toward the end of a game warmup feeding each other passes for one-timers.
“Kisakov knows more than me (with language) and he helps me and “Neuch” with English. “
Novikov has also been helped by the coaching staff putting him on a defensive pair with a veteran player—usually Ethan Prow, but lately Jacob Bryson or Joseph Cecconi with Prow out with an injury. And assistant coach Nathan Paetsch has also been a key part of his transition.
Off the ice has, of course, been quite the adjustment as well.
“I love to cook, and I like healthy food and I hate bad food,” Arina said. “We don’t like oily food, but I cook burger at home and his health is better with vitamins and we have amazing meals…pork, chicken and beef but only in burger.”
And on the rare off days? Getting a taste of western New York and Americana.
“Sit at home or walk around and we like shopping. We spend a lot of time together in Wal-Mart and Wegman’s and we choose healthy food together. And we want to go to concerts maybe in Buffalo. And we went to (see) Adam Sandler, but it was so hard for us with the language, but we tried to understand.”
Late round draft picks are usually longer-term projects and, if the Sabres can be patient with Novikov’s development for a few seasons, they may have a keeper.
(Photos Provided by Rochester Americans Hockey Team)