Nikita Novikov has acclimated to the AHL well. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu, Rochester Americans

Rochester rookie Nikita Novikov looks like special Sabres defense prospect

ROCHESTER – Buffalo Sabres defense prospect Nikita Novikov displayed special offensive instincts throughout his first regular season in North America.

“Borderline high-end,” said coach Seth Appert, whose Americans open the Calder Cup Playoffs tonight at Blue Cross Arena in a best-of-five series against the Syracuse Crunch.

Without the benefit of power-play time, the 6-foot-4, 209-pound Novikov compiled 20 assists, a high total for a rookie acclimating to a different brand of hockey.

“You don’t see a lot of 20-year-old defensemen put up those numbers not on the power play,” said Nathan Paetsch, the Amerks’ assistant coach in charge of the defense. “It’s pretty rare. That’s just his instincts are really high-end offensively. He just sees plays.”

But that assist total can be a bit misleading. While his playmaking ability is a strength – “He’s a real good offensive complementary player five-on-five,” Appert said – the Russian projects to be a more defensive defenseman.

“A (Mattias) Samuelsson-esque guy that can end plays,” Paetsch said of what Novikov can develop into someday. “Like, that’s the type of player you build him up to.”

That, of course, is high praise. The 6-foot-4, 224-pound Samuelsson, 24, has spent much of his career skating on Buffalo’s top defense pairing alongside Rasmus Dahlin.

How impressive has Novikov looked as a rookie? His gaudy plus-20 rating led the Amerks.

“(Novikov) has that passion, that drive, and once he gets even stronger, I think the physical side of it will keep coming and coming,” Paetsch said. “He has an excellent stick. He’s got a long reach. It puts him in a lot of advantageous situations. Like, he breaks out plays.”

Novikov, a sixth-round pick in 2021, 188th overall, broke out early this season, leading the Sabres with five points (all assists) during the Prospects Challenge rookie tournament.

Remember, forwards Zach Benson, Jiri Kulich, Isak Rosen, Matt Savoie – all of whom the Sabres drafted in the first round – also participated in those games.

After spending last season competing against men in the Kontinental Hockey League – he compiled two goals and five points in 62 games for Moscow Dynamo – Novikov has quickly adjusted to the AHL.

Paetsch’s presence has clearly increased Novikov’s comfort in Rochester. Before the Sabres named him an assistant with the Amerks this season, Paetsch spent two years as a development coach working with Buffalo’s defense prospects.

Prior to Novikov’s arrival, they established a relationship talking on Zoom and texting in English, a request from the youngster to help him learn the language. They finally met in person almost a year ago at development camp.

“It’s lot of help,” said Novikov, who scored three goals in 65 regular-season games. “We watch video every day. He shows me my mistakes, my good moments and he teaches me a lot of things.”

But Novikov’s skill and confidence are probably the two biggest factors in his standout season.

“The beauty of Novi is he’s got the confidence of a high-end player,” Appert said. “He’s got a strong belief in himself, and that’s a good thing.”

Paetsch said the “swagger” Novikov possesses contributes to his offense. He’s not afraid to make a mistake. If he does, it doesn’t dog him. He simply believes he will recover.

That confidence factored in the AHL’s 13th-best plus-minus rating.

“Some young guys, the biggest issue is going up and down,” Paetsch said. “You have a bad play or something like that, you can’t recover from it. It’s in your mind, in your mind. Whereas I think his confidence helps him overcome that. It gives him a level of consistency.”

Novikov’s warm, fun personality has also made an impression. Paetsch called him “just a big, happy giant.” Appert said “he’s jovial at the rink.”

“Since Day One on the bench … he’s the first guy to fist-bump, the first guy to cheer for his teammate when something happens,” Paetsch said. “That’s the type of kid he is. He’s a great teammate and you can the tell the guys gravitate to him. They really love him.”

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