Nesterov Takes Next Step Toward NHL Dream

By Jeremy Houghtaling

For Nikita Nesterov, this season is his first away from home.

The Syracuse Crunch defensemen, who spent the last four seasons in his hometown of Chelyabinsk with the junior MHL team or with Traktor of the Kontinental Hockey League, is still getting acclimated to his new surroundings. While his homeland is halfway around the world, the ultimate goal -- to play in the National Hockey League -- is one step away.

"It was pretty tough, I won two medals with my KHL team, third and second place in the past two years, but I wanted to learn something new," Nesterov said through a translator.

The change in food and culture is fine. The language barrier can be hashed out.

But on the ice, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s fifth-rounder in 2011 is adjusting to the smaller ice surface and more physical play. Before being signed in April, Nesterov’s North American experience was limited to the World Junior Championships and the Subway Super Series.

Despite the transition, the 20-year-old is having a career year in points.

Nesterov is a mainstay on the Crunch power play, and has registered two goals and six assists in his first 15 American Hockey League games. Over 67 career KHL games, he had five assists.

"He's a smart player," said Syracuse coach Rob Zettler. "He moves the puck well and he's got a really good shot."

For Nesterov to continue to develop and take the next step, the 5-11, 195-pounder needs to adapt to a grittier style of play.

"He needs to get a little more physical out there to be an impact player, but that comes with learning the pro game and playing on a smaller ice surface," Zettler said.

Nesterov is also putting in the effort to improve his English.

"Often, I'll have one-on-one meetings, and those guys don't want the translator in there," Zettler said. "They'll just take it on themselves. Nesterov has done that a couple times."

When asked what he planned to work on, Nesterov had a very simple response - “BCe."