It feels like an entire set of cutlery is being driven through our eyeballs whenever the term “enigmatic European” is haphazardly slapped onto a sentence describing disappointment in Nikolai Zherdev.
Zherdev signed with Atlant Mytishchi of the KHL earlier today, a Russian hockey outpost that’s quickly assembling a discarded dream team after also signing Alex Kovalev.
Kovalev’s defection to his native land made sense. His prime years are far in the rear-view mirror, and at the age of 38 he’s now having trouble merely keeping up with the pace of the NHL game. But Kovalev still has a desire to compete and play hockey at a high level, and he isn’t ready yet for the Dominik Hasek roller hockey league. The KHL exists for players who meet that description.
But the lack of interest that led to Zherdev’s second banishment to the KHL leaves us asking one question.
Adjectives like “underachieving” are tossed around when Zherdev is discussed primarily because he was drafted at such a high position (fourth overall by the Blue Jackets in 2003). He was blessed with soft hands and speed, qualities that evidently dazzled Columbus and convinced the struggling franchise that he was worth such a high investment.
He wasn’t, but that’s not Zherdev’s fault. While playing in Russia over the two seasons prior to the 2003 draft he had just 28 points in 64. However, there was still an intoxicating quality about his upside, which planted the seeds for Zherdev’s failure to cash in on the potential that we all believed–or more accurately, were made to believe–he had.
Maybe Zherdev has lived up to his potential, and the peak of his development was just dramatically misjudged. The problem likely lies in an infectious and viral negative perception of his character. Zherdev has been cast as the living embodiment of a stereotype throughout his entire NHL career, and coaches have made sure that he’s played the role perfectly.
He’s certainly been inconsistent offensively, but it’s reasonable to attribute a share of that to an inconsistency of another sort. Between his stops in Columbus, New York, and Philadelphia, Zherdev has played parts of six seasons. He played in 60 or more games in four of those seasons, and when he was actually given a consistent opportunity to avoid being inconsistent he was, well, pretty consistent.
Zherdev has a combined 86 goals in those seasons when the shackles were unlocked and he was permitted to step onto the ice with some degree of regularity. He averaged 21.5 goals per season in those years, 0.67 points per game, and 51.3 points per year. Erik Cole had 26 goals and 52 points last season, and that–combined with Montreal’s desperation to sign anyone larger than an Indian rubber ball–earned him $4.5 million a year this summer.
During his last full season in 2008-09 as a Ranger, Zherdev had 23 goals and 58 points, a point total that’s only two back of other established mid-tier offensive contributors like Scott Hartnell and David Booth, and ahead of David Backes and Dustin Brown. This all adds up to Zherdev’s real identity, and not the one he was assigned in 2003 by Columbus. When we peel back the layers of stereotype we find that he’s the typical 25ish goal-scorer and 50-point man, a player who certainly isn’t deserving of his lofty draft status, but one that also shouldn’t have a problem finding a third-line home in the NHL as a secondary scorer.
Yet Zherdev is left to join the ranks of the obscure and toil in Russia again at the young of 26. Teams with plenty of room to accommodate his affordable cap hit–likely in the neighbourhood of $1.5 million after a hit of $2 million last year–stood idle.
Ottawa has $12.5 million in cap space and finished second last in scoring. They chose to gamble on Nikita Filatov, another Columbus castoff and draft embarrassment, and spend money to compete with the Leafs in truculence by signing Zenon Kenopka. Winnipeg has a similar cap surplus and scoring deficiency, but rumors of Zherdev’s Jet landing were greatly exaggerated.
In the end this may be beneficial, because once the frenzy calms down again next July we’ll need something to do when we’re not speculating about Shea Weber’s paycheque again.