The first time that Boston College men’s hockey coach Jerry York and his staff saw Nikita Nesterenko play as a freshman in high school, it was hard to imagine him having enough physicality to make it in the upper echelons of college hockey.
“He was like 5-foot-3,” York said with a grin.
Nesterenko was committed to Princeton at the time, but after three elite years of prep hockey, one year of dominant play in juniors, and with nearly another foot of height to his advantage, his college aspirations looked much different.
“Our assistant coach Brendan Buckely was out at BC junior league watching him play—there was a showcase in late September and he thought, ‘Well this is a completely different player than I saw three years ago,’” York said. “He just sprouted up.”
That growth spurt has worked out quite well for both parties. Nesterenko made an instant impact in his first year on the Heights, leading all Hockey East freshmen with seven goals and 11 assists for 18 points during the regular season. The Eagles tended to go as Nesterenko went. In the 14 games where Nesterenko notched at least one point, BC went 12–2–0.
His early contributions earned him the title of co-Hockey East Rookie of the Year alongside Josh Lopina of UMass.
Despite Nesterenko’s strong season and the dynamic play of a host of other BC stars, including several who are already making names for themselves in the NHL, last season did not end as intended for the program.
First, BC crashed out of the Hockey East Tournament in the second round after blowing a 3–0 second-period lead to UMass Lowell. Then, after moving to the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament due to a COVID-19 forfeiture by Notre Dame, the Eagles again blew an early lead to fall 4–1 to St. Cloud State.
It was a disappointing end to a stellar year for a BC team stocked with NHL talent, as well as personally for Nesterenko, who did not register a point in either of BC’s postseason losses. But despite the losses of top players such as Matt Boldy, Alex Newhook, and Spencer Knight, BC returns plenty of talent for another run.
Longtime contributors Jack McBain and Marc McLaughlin headline the senior leadership and guide a program joined by several highly touted freshmen and a group of graduate transfers. The talent is present, and as is always true for a program of BC’s caliber, the goal is to claim a National Championship. This year’s group has an added bonus: the chance to celebrate the program’s 100th season with a title.
“I know that’s what I’m looking forward to,” Nesterenko said. “Win. That’s what all the guys have on their mind, so I think if we can just take all [the centennial] in and win a National Championship with that, I think that’ll be extra special.”
Early returns have been promising. The Eagles easily dispatched American International College (AIC) by a 4–1 margin in the season-opening exhibition, and Nesterenko provided one of the goals off a silky lift into the top left of the net to give BC a three-goal cushion.
“I thought we played great,” Nesterenko said. “Obviously it was a lot of people’s first game, but I thought we all bought in. We added a lot of experience this year, which I think is one thing that we were missing last year.”
For Nesterenko, claiming that National Championship in the centennial would be the ultimate testament to the winning tradition that originally brought him to BC.
“That [tradition] was probably the main decision for me, because you’re seeing all these players come through BC and then obviously going to play in the NHL and do great things there,” Nesterenko said. “Then hopefully [I’ll be] another one of those players that they’re able to develop.”
Though Nesterenko’s development on the Heights will steer his NHL prospects, his ambitions already have a target, as the Minnesota Wild drafted him in the sixth round of the 2019 NHL Draft.
Should he make it to the show, he will be in good company with former Eagles. Boldy was selected in the first round by the Wild in 2019 and joined their AHL affiliate for 14 games last season after closing out his BC career. Boldy showed out in his brief stint, totalling 18 points and a series of highlight plays, and he seems poised to make the roster for this upcoming NHL season.
“We haven’t talked about [playing together] much but it’s been on my mind,” Nesterenko said. “I know he’s over there now. He’s doing great, I’ve watched a couple of his games. He’s an unbelievable player and he’s gonna play a lot of years in the NHL.”
Wild General Manager Bill Guerin is also a former Eagle, having skated on the Heights between 1989 and 1991, and Nesterenko’s current teammate Marshall Warren was also a Wild selection in the 2019 Draft.
York is not shy in pointing out the ways that Nesterenko can improve on his stellar freshman year season going into this year’s campaign. Despite the growth spurt that turned him from a talented-but-too-small high school prospect to a college star, York would love to see more physicality in Nesterenko’s game.
“We’ve got a lot of players that are older, that are more physical than Nikita, that he’s probably trying to emulate,” York said. “He’s one of many keys that we have for our season, but surely he looks up to McBain, McLaughlin, players of that caliber.”
Off the ice, York’s relationship with Nesterenko is a good example of the way that COVID-19 harmed the normal flow of athletics last season, even beyond the clear examples of cancellations and player absences.
“I’m just getting to know him because last year was such a hard year, [so] we really couldn’t have any interaction with players,” York said. “He seemed like a really nice young guy, but last year we could hardly sit down with any players.”
Even with that contact possible this year, Nesterenko and York’s ability to build a personal relationship, as well as Nesterenko’s season preparation, was hindered by COVID-19 once again.
Nesterenko tested positive for COVID-19 just before training started and missed most of the camp, although he returned for the last couple days prior to BC’s exhibition against AIC and looked smooth making the adjustment.
“He spent 10 days in Shawshank,” York said.
So far this year, York said he likes what he sees in Nesterenko’s continuing work to bring more physicality to his play.
“[He] looks like he’s stronger, looks like he’s more confident than he was at this time last year, so we expect him to be one of our top-end offensive players this year,” York said.
Featured Image Courtesy of BC Athletics
Other Image Courtesy of BC Athletics