Of Russian Influence – An Introduction To Nikolai Zherdev

By Aaron Vickers

He stands at a generous six feet tall. He tips the scale at a shade
over 175 pounds, soaking wet. He lacks dominating size and a strong
defensive presence. So what is it that has the Columbus Blue
Jackets drooling over Russian sensation Nikolai Zherdev?

Participating in their fourth ever National Hockey League Entry Draft,
General Manager Doug MacLean and the Columbus Blue Jackets scouting
staff had their eyes on one prize and one prize only; Russian forward
Nikolai Zherdev. In fact, the intentions of the club were voiced
through Doug MacLean in the days leading up to the draft. So what was
it that made Zherdev, who at this time last season was dubbed as the
‘consensus number one selection’, so attractive to the Columbus Blue
Jackets?

Zherdev’s combination of speed, skill and sense on the ice are a rarity
at his age. The top ranked European skater by the National
Hockey League’s Central Scouting Bureau, he saw his stock slip somewhat
after a mediocre showing at the 2003 World Junior Championships, in
which a dispute with Russian head coach Rafael Ishmatov saw Zherdev limited
to third line ice time.

“I am obviously not satisfied with the play at the tournament. There
was a misunderstanding with the coach,” said Zherdev at the draft, who went on to
explain that the lack of trust from Rafael Ishmatov resulted in his
lack of playing time. Zherdev, clearly unhappy with his play, went on
record as saying that “only one assist in the whole tournament is
obviously clearly not good enough.”

Putting the tournament aside, Zherdev had a strong 2002-03 campaign
which saw him play with the Central Red Army Team in the Russian
Elite League. Skating in 44 games, he tallied 12 goals and added
another 12 assists, totalling 24 points, while adding an additional 34
penalty minutes.

The 2003 fourth overall selection isn’t about to dwell on this past
season. In fact, Zherdev turned his complete attention to the 2003
Entry Draft at the conclusion of his season in the Russian Elite
League. Visa issues had Zherdev worried whether or not he’d make it to
the draft in time, but he managed, arriving in the United States three
days later than originally planned. With all the questions answered
from the 2003 Entry Draft, it allowed a new series of questions in
search of answers, surrounding the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nikolai
Zherdev.

It was rumored that, before the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired the
rights to the first overall selection and made their intentions known
that goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
would be their selection, that Zherdev stated on a television program
in Russia his distaste for the potential of playing in Pittsburgh.
Without hesitation, Zherdev dismissed these allegations. Zherdev,
however, had no problems expressing his excitement to be selected by
the Columbus Blue Jackets, instead.

In fact, it was the trade made by Pittsburgh that essentially decided
where Nikolai Zherdev would play. Zherdev learned of the trade via his
agent, who quickly explained to him what to expect with the first four
selections in the draft.

“My agent said that Pittsburgh really likes Fleury,” said Zherdev, “and
Carolina is picking second and then Florida, so it was likely I would
go fourth in the draft. So, I strongly expected before the draft that I
would be fourth.” Another indication that Columbus would snatch up
Zherdev if given the opportunity was that he was interviewed by
Doug MacLean on several occassions. Despite having aspirations of being
the first player selected in 2003, Zherdev seems content with Columbus.

When asked if he had any expectations to be drafted first overall,
Zherdev shrugged off the premise, saying that all he could do was play,
and prove that he should have been selected higher.

Nikolai’s attention has now been shifted away from the 2003 Entry
Draft, with his focus solely on next season. Despite not having a
contract in place, Zherdev still believes he can contribute to the
Columbus Blue Jackets next season. In fact, Zherdev, in anticipation of
coming over to North America for the 2003-04 season, has already
pre-arranged a deal with the Red Army Club.

“We already made a deal with the Red Army Club that if I want to leave
for the National Hockey League this season, they are not going to
prevent me from doing so,” explained Zherdev. In addition to that
agreement, Zherdev would have no problems severing ties with CSKA, as
he isn’t under contract for the 2002-03 season. He also feels that if
he should be playing in North America next season, with the Columbus
Blue Jackets, adapting will not be a problem. When asked about whether
or not he felt he would have any problems, he quickly responded by
saying “I think I’ll be okay.”

Zherdev certainly doesn’t seem to be intimidated with coming to North
America to play hockey, both on and off the ice. North American culture
isn’t something too intimidating to the forward, nor is living on his
own. Zherdev had even stated that he’s been living on his own for a
while now. He feels that despite not knowing much, he can adapt
quickly and easily in his rookie campaign.

“I am not too familiar with the culture at this point,” admits Zherdev,
“but I feel that if I come to America and live on my own, without much
help, I should be able to get accustomed in about six months.”

Zherdev also believes that he has a good situation in Columbus. With a
younger Columbus squad, ice time should not be a pressing issue for
Zherdev when he makes his trip over the ocean. Subsequently, Zherdev
realizes his potential situation with the Blue Jackets, and equates
that with his past season with CSKA.

“I hope to receive a lot of ice time and deliver results early,” states
Zherdev. “The situation is similar to that of CSKA when I played there
last season,” remembers Nikolai, who was one of the youngest on the
roster, “where the team was young and just returned back to the Elite
Super League from the Lower Upper League.” How much ice time Zherdev
would receive in his rookie season can only be speculated, but could be
paralleled to that of Calder finalist Rick
Nash
, who saw limited minutes on the third line in 2002-03.

At this point, it is unclear where Zherdev will reside for the 2003-04
season. There is the chance that he will suit up for the
Blue Jackets. There is also the strong possibility that he will
return to Russia, and again play for the Red Army Club. Either way is a
can’t-lose situation for Zherdev. Should he and his agent decide that
Columbus is the place Zherdev needs to be for 2003-04, he will receive
absolutely everything he requires, both on and off the ice. Should it
be decided that returning to the Elite Super League would be in the
best interests of Zherdev, he will receive coaching from arguably the
best hockey coach in the world, 73-year-old Viktor Tikhonov, who has coached
CSKA for 25 seasons.

The future may look bright for Columbus, which has the potential
makings of a great first line of years to come. Jacket fans may begin
to drool thinking about Nikolai Zherdev on the right side, centred by
2003 second round selection Dan
Fritsche
, with Rick Nash patrolling the left side. There may be
only one flaw with having Nikolai Zherdev down the right side for the
Columbus, in the eyes of Jacket fans. He lists his favorite team as the
Detroit Red Wings.