Not including last night, it has been 5 games since Nikita Okhotiuk has been called up to fill in for injured defensemen. With John Marino still injured, he has been filling in on the bottom pairing, and despite not getting on the score sheet, his underlying numbers show that he has done fairly well in limited minutes. Not including last night’s game against Anaheim, here were his numbers dating back to his call up for the December 23rd game against Boston, thanks to Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference:
First off, understand that the ranks should be taken with a grain of salt. He has limited minutes, 55:12 at 5 on 5 play heading into Anaheim, so there is a very small sample size by which to discuss rankings among the Devils. Especially since that is compared to many players who have over 500 or even 600 5v5 minutes at this point, so the comparison is not exactly fair. Nonetheless, I think the ranks tell a story, so I wanted to list them anyway. They show that in his limited minutes so far this year, he has been highly successful both in possession and in expected goals despite having only team average offensive zone faceoffs and poor luck to boot.
Specifically, within those numbers, the team is only allowing only 45.65 Corsi events against per 60 when he is on the ice, which is third best on the team, behind only Andreas Johnsson and Jesper Bratt. And even Okhotiuk has more games played and minutes for the Devils than Johnsson does, so really you could put him 2nd if you wanted to. Nikita was drafted in the second round back in 2019 as a defensive defenseman, so it is good to see that he is influencing the game where he was meant to when he was drafted. He is helping to prevent the opposition from getting off shot attempts, and he is even better at preventing them from getting those attempts on net. Okhotiuk currently ranks 2nd on the entire team in shots against per 60, or 1st if you don’t want to include Johnsson, which I think is reasonable. With him on the ice, the Devils are only allowing 17.39 shots per 60 at 5v5, which is an incredible number. Again, small sample size, but it goes to show that he has been successful so far.
Interestingly, he has formed a pretty strong connection with Brendan Smith on that third pairing. When the two have been on the ice together, which at 5 on 5 was for 30:34 heading into Anaheim, they have a CF% of 64.15. When they are apart, their numbers both drop. Okhotiuk only has a 48.89 CF% without him, while Smith is at 52.13%. This is highlighted even more when looking at xGF%. The pairing, when together for those 30+ minutes, has had a dynamite 81.12 xGF%. But when apart, Okhotiuk has a 58.88 xGF% while Smith is at a measly 42.90%.
Now, the reasoning behind the strong numbers when together could be for a couple of reasons. First, as a third pairing, the coaching staff will be doing everything they can to put them out against easier competition. Especially at home, with the last change, Lindy Ruff will throw the Okhotiuk-Smith pairing out there against the opposition’s bottom 6 whenever possible. So it also goes to stand that when Okhotiuk was out there with one of the other defenders, except perhaps Severson, he was playing against better competition. That would help to lower his Corsi while out there with those guys as opposed to Smith. However, it also could mean a quality connection between these two guys that could work over the longer term, or at least until Marino gets back.
Now, of course, the key will be to see if he could maintain similar numbers and performance over a longer stretch of playing time. 56 minutes of ice time is not a whole lot to go off of, so I don’t want to make it sound like he has been amazing and deserves considerably more playing time. It all could change by the time he hits 200 minutes, or 400 if he even got the chance to have that many. But that also doesn’t mean that we should entirely discount what he has done so far with this opportunity. You are looking for the next man up to produce while players are injured, and so far, Nikita has done just that. It shows growth from the 22 year old defenseman, and that is key. Defenders take a little longer on average to develop than forwards, so him being only 22 and showing this growth is a good sign. It could mean that in a year or two, he could become an NHL regular for this team as a defensive specialist. Don’t expect offense out of him, but as a shutdown guy like Andy Greene was in his prime, he could help this team out if he keeps developing and showing these quality numbers as he has for the Devils so far.
With Simon Nemec now waiting in the wings, it was imperative for Nikita that he gives a positive impression with this opportunity, and so far, he has done just that. With a poor showing, he could have easily been leap frogged by the #2 overall pick from this past year, and it would have been a lot tougher for him to see playing time in the future. But now, the Devils could definitely be keeping a closer eye on him to see if he can earn more NHL time. I don’t think he will prevent Nemec from getting NHL time when he is ready considering the high draft pick, but it could allow the organization to allow Nemec to grow and develop more before calling him up, which could be very beneficial in the long term. It could be a win-win all around, and I hope Okhotiuk can continue to play well in New Jersey.