Welcome to the Nesterenkshow: Ducks’ Nikita Nesterenko’s Path to the NHL

For Nikita Nesterenko, hockey always felt like the sport for him. Neither of his parents are well-known hockey stars from a past era like some players but hockey is an extremely popular sport in Russia, where both of his parents immigrated from.

Soccer and hockey were the choices of sport growing up, with hockey grabbing a hold of the Brooklyn native. Once he reached double-digits in age, the switch to playing just hockey was made.

Nesterenko’s father, Mikhail, was on-site at Honda Center to watch both of his son’s first two games. “He was just happy for me,” said Nesterenko. “Just saying, ‘You were playing simple, (you) played well’. He was just saying, ‘Next time you get some of those grade-A chances, bury them’. Nesterenko grinned. “So I got to focus on that for the next couple of games.”

Focus on it he did, as the 21-year-old scored his first NHL goal on Saturday against the St. Louis Blues. Mason McTavish found him near the right side of the crease with a terrific pass and Nesterenko was able to slam it home uncontested.

It hasn’t been a straightforward journey to the NHL for Nesterenko, who made stops in Lawrenceville, Chilliwack and Chestnut Hill before making his way to Anaheim.

His first couple of high school seasons came with an adjustment period but his final season at The Lawrenceville School saw him pot 30 goals in 31 games, totaling 59 points. He was recognized as the 2019 Trentonian Prep Player of the Year and was named to the USHS All-USA Hockey Third Team.

Nesterenko also played tennis and lacrosse for Lawrenceville’s junior varsity teams because athletes were required to play sports during both the fall and spring.

“It was good. Tennis was really good for my footwork. I wasn’t very good but just getting out there, getting to balls, it’s good for your footwork and translates to hockey. (It’s) the same with lacrosse. Hand-eye coordination––that helps with hockey. Just little things like that.”

The next step in his journey looked to be collegiate hockey at Brown University, where Nesterenko had committed to in 2018. But his breakout season at Lawrenceville drew more eyes, and Nesterenko opted to head to the BCHL and play for the Chilliwack Chiefs for a season.

He was also reunited with a teammate from his youth in Cooper Moore. The pair played together on the Mid Fairfield Blues along with current Duck Trevor Zegras and Florida Panthers goaltender Spencer Knight in the 2011 Brick Invitational.

“(Cooper is) still a really good buddy of mine,” said Nesterenko. “We actually FaceTimed the other day. He was on my brick team and then we went to Chilliwack together. I was always over at his house. His place had a nice hot tub so we would always go over there.”

Also on that Chiefs team was Ethan Bowen, who was drafted in the seventh round by the Ducks in 2020. Bowen, who retired from hockey last year after four seasons with the Chiefs, had plenty of praise for Nesterenko.

“Nikita’s a great guy. He came to Chilliwack and no one really knew that much about him. But he started lighting it up here and everybody started to realize who he was and what he’s about, so a lot of people started following him.”

Nesterenko was a point per game player for the Chiefs and led the team in goals, assists and total points. He also led the entire league in points and was named a finalist for BCHL Rookie of the Year.

It was during Nesterenko’s season with the Chiefs that he decided to de-commit from Brown and entertain other offers. He received several offers from Hockey East teams but ultimately committed to Boston College.

“When I committed to Brown, it was more I would say my parents’ decision. They wanted me to go to Ivy League, they’re all about academics. Then I kind of got older, really wanted to play in college in Boston (and) play in the Beanpot. Stuff like that. I just decided to explore other options and BC came across. I really wanted to play in Boston so I was excited to switch schools.”

At Boston College, Nesterenko found himself surrounded by plenty of NHL draft picks. He himself was one as well, having been drafted in the sixth round in 2019 by Minnesota. One of those players also happened to be someone he played with growing up: Spencer Knight. Of course, Knight was a dominant force at BC and Nesterenko said as much.

“He’s a stud. He’s almost like a robot. (He) plays well every practice, every game. He kept us in every game, it was unbelievable. He’s probably one of the best goalies I’ve ever played with. He’s a great kid, we still keep in touch.”

Several of Nesterenko’s college teammates were also fellow Wild draft picks. Marshall Warren and Jack McBain both spent several seasons playing with Nesterenko but it was first-round pick and fellow draft classmate Matt Boldy whom he developed a strong friendship with.

 “He’s a special player,” said Nesterenko of Boldy. “He was really good in college (and) everyone knew that he was going to be a really good player (in the NHL), but no one thought he would adjust to the league that quick like he did. (What) he’s doing now is incredible.”

Mar 19, 2023; Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Matt Boldy (12) celebrates completing a hat trick against the Washington Capitals during the third period at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

 “He’s probably one of the best guys that I’ve played with. If there’s a guy on him, he almost never loses the puck. He always tries to make a play with it. He’s a bigger guy so he uses his frame to protect it, but he also has incredible puck skills. He’s an unbelievable player, nothing bad to say about that guy.”

Another player that Nesterenko had a strong rapport with during his time at Boston College was Logan Hutsko, who was a senior when Nesterenko began his collegiate career. The pair played on a line together up until Hutsko’s season was cut short due to an ankle injury. But the senior instilled plenty of knowledge in his teammate and was someone that Nesterenko looked up to.

Both Hutsko and Boldy are two players that Nesterenko says he tries to take little elements of their game from to apply to his own.

Though he was originally drafted as a center, Nesterenko says that the last time he played down the middle was in prep school. “As soon as I got to juniors and then college, I played wing the whole way through. So I’d say I transitioned my game to wing now, I’m more comfortable playing wing.”

Mar 25, 2023; Anaheim, California, USA; Anaheim Ducks center Nikita Nesterenko (62) looks on during the third period against the St. Louis Blues at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Progression came with every passing season at Boston College for Nesterenko, who was named Hockey East Co-Rookie of the Year in 2021. He upped his points total every year and was close to a point per game this season while playing alongside Cutter Gauthier and Garden Grove native Andre Gasseau on BC’s top line. Gauthier was drafted fifth overall by Philadelphia last summer and will be returning to BC for his sophomore season.

“He has an unbelievable shot,” said Nesterenko. “Unbelievable release. “He’s easy to play with. He’s always in the right spots so as long as you give him the puck in the slot or whatever, you can count on him to put it in. He made a really quick adjustment to college. Coming in as a freshman, it’s not easy, but he did super well. He’s a big strong kid so it was easy for him. He’s got a bright future ahead of him.”

Nesterenko says he hasn’t been able to talk to Gasseau since signing his contract but admits that he needs to “reach out to more Cali guys for sure”.

Nesterenko finds himself in the Ducks organization thanks to a trade deadline day deal that saw defenseman John Klingberg head the other way. There had been talks that Nesterenko wasn’t planning to sign with the Wild out of college, which made including him in the deal for Klingberg an easy decision for general manager Bill Guerin.

“There’s a lot of opportunity here” was one of the reasons Nesterenko cited for why he decided to sign with the Ducks. There was also the presence of his former youth teammate Zegras along with goaltender Anthony Stolarz, whom he works out with back home during the offseason.

Nesterenko also played alongside Drew Helleson at Boston College. Helleson, who was acquired last season from Colorado, is currently playing for the San Diego Gulls, the Ducks’ AHL affiliate. The pair roomed together during Nesterenko’s sophomore year.

“Drew was a really good (defenseman) for us. He’s obviously really good defensively but he played a really offensive role too. He ran our power play so he definitely has a lot of offensive instincts, but I would say he’s more of a defensive defenseman. It was a good time rooming with him and (he’s) a great player so hopefully, we can play together soon.”

In the short time that he’s been with the Ducks, Nesterenko hasn’t looked out of place. He’s getting to know his new teammates more and has spent extra time after practice with assistant coach Craig Johnson in order to improve his play near the boards.

Head coach Dallas Eakins likes that Nesterenko hasn’t tried to defer to his teammates too much and has been aggressive with the puck in the offensive zone.

“I do like the fact that he was trying to take that puck to the net. He wasn’t afraid to go there. If he thought it was time to get it deep, he wasn’t trying to force something to one of his teammates. So, I thought he did a really good job managing that part.”

“(Eakins) told me that 80-90% of the games are played within that five-foot radius of the boards,” said Nesterenko. “Just picking up fast rims from the (defensemen) and just being strong on the walls there, that’s going to be big in this adjustment.”

“He’ll never forget that one,” said Eakins about Nesterenko’s first goal. “I think any time you’re a teammate or a coach or whatever it is, those are always feel-good moments. The kid’s first game the other night, that’s a feel-good moment. Then he scores, that’s a huge one (too).”

Mar 25, 2023; Anaheim, California, USA; Anaheim Ducks center Nikita Nesterenko (62) celebrates with center Mason McTavish (37) after scoring a goal against the St. Louis Blues during first period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

With less than 10 games remaining in the season, there will be several more chances to make an impression heading into the summer. “Nester”, as he’s known by most of his Anaheim teammates, says he wants to catch a few of his brother Matthew’s hockey games during the offseason.

“My brother came late,” said Nesterenko. “He’s only 11, so for the majority of my life, it was just my sister (Anastasia) and me. She did gymnastics growing up so she was also involved in sports competitively and then she quit once she got to college. Both athletes on the sibling side and then my brother, my dad’s coaching him, so he’s having fun.”

Father Mikhail got to have a little more fun before returning to New York as he witnessed his son’s first NHL goal in person before catching a red-eye flight back to the East Coast. “I buried one for him,” was what son Nesterenko told Bally Sports West’s Aly Lozoff during his first intermission interview. Hopefully, he’ll be burying a lot more.

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