If anyone thought the days of cloak and dagger sneaking around to get out of Russia to play hockey in the NHL were gone, then they haven’t been following the Nikolai Zherdev saga. The Columbus Blue Jackets rookie joined the team some 20 games into the regular season when he snuck out of the Motherland without his team’s (CSKA Moscow) permission to play with the young NHL club. A recent ruling by the International Ice Hockey Federation announced that the winger did not have to return to Russia to fulfill any military or ice hockey commitments which allows Zherdev to continue his NHL career.
The Russian, picked fourth overall by the Blue Jackets in 2003, has a long history of performance to match his high draft status. Coming up through the Elektrostal club system, he repeatedly wowed his coaches. Back in 1999-2000 he tallied 10 goals and 7 assists in 21 games playing for their third division club as a 15-year-old. The next season he was promoted to their second division club and proceeded to rack up five goals and eight assists in 18 games. He then moved into the Russian first division as a 17-year-old and put up 13 goals and 15 assists in 53 games still playing for Elektrostal as a 17-year-old. CSKA Moscow then traded for him in the following year and he continued his progress with 12 goals and 24 points in 44 games during his draft year.
Although overshadowed in the World Junior Championships by Alexander Ovechkin partially due to the fact that he didn’t get along with the coach, there is no doubt that Zherdev possesses the goods to be a very productive NHL player.
Michael Simmons of the Columbus desk at Hockey’s Future says “he is already one of the best stickhandlers in the league (and is an) agile skater with excellent quickness.” While he doesn’t possess a howitzer of a shot like some wingers of old, his wrist shot “is above average (and he) willing uses it when he has an opportunity to score.” Simmons also points out that “he seems equally capable of setting up or finishing off plays which makes him extremely dangerous in the offensive zone.”
Like most young forward though Simmons cautions that he “is always thinking offense first and is usually the first one down the ice on the rush” That said “he will backcheck through the neutral zone and occasionally lay down to block the odd shot.” All told “he is more defensively willing than advertised.” However, being willing and knowing where to be in your own zone are two different things. Simmons readily admits that Zherdev “gets lost in the defensive zone when the opponent gets into the cycle.” He also “can overhandle the puck in his own zone” which “has directly lead to several goals against.” As well, like most young players, the 6’0″ 176-pound Russian needs to get stronger. Simmons reports that Zherdev “gets knocked off the puck by bigger defensemen.” One bad habit that is starting to rear it’s ugly head is the fact that he will sometimes lose his cool and “take questionable penalties away from the play,” states Simmons.
His linemates at full strength since coming over from Russia have been Manny Malholtra and Kent McDonell as the Blue Jackets start him off slowly. Lately he has been playing on the right side with Todd Marchant and Geoff Sanderson, Sanderson has been dealt to the Canucks so he’ll have a new linemate. On the power play he is usually paired with Rick Nash on the left wing. Now that Alexander Svitov has come over from the Tampa Bay Lightning though it’s a possibility that you will find him in the middle as Svitov and Zherdev are the only Russian born players on the team.
All in all, Zherdev is a player who has an immense amount of talent but needs to be taught the nuances of playing defense within a team concept. If you thought that he reminded you of a young Alexander Mogilny, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark.