by Christopher Nardella, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine
MONTREAL, QC — The Montreal Canadiens’ lack of offensive prowess has been one cause of their failure to achieve the ultimate goal over the course of the Marc Bergevin regime. Despite the Canadiens general manager adding one offensive dynamo last summer, the team is still wholly deprived of consistent offensive production throughout the lineup. This is a quality that is necessary if the Habs wish to contend for a Stanley Cup.
In the eyes of many fans, the team is desperate for a twinkle of production in the future. This has put Canadiens prospect, Nikita Scherbak, squarely under the microscope. His case has been more unfairly dissected than anyone else’s in Montreal’s farm system.
Selected with the 26th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Scherbak has been looked to as the hope of the Canadiens’ future offensive production on the wing. Scherbak’s name is atop a hill of meager talent.
Charles Hudon is perhaps the closest to Scherbak as an offensively-gifted prospect. Discussing his situation is beyond the scope of this piece. But in my opinion, Hudon has been hampered by the Canadiens system, and will not be given favours any time soon.
Scherbak’s offensive production in junior, and flare for the spectacular, has fostered an expectation that his progress would bring him to the NHL, two years into his professional career. In two junior hockey seasons with Saskatoon and Everett, Scherbak had 55 goals and 165 points in 130 games. So far in the pros, the 21-year-old has not been able to match that production in St. John’s causing consternation in the Canadiens fan base.
Some point to the Russian native’s perceived inability to remain healthy. A quick look at his statistics show that Scherbak has missed 38 games since first becoming a St. John’s IceCap. But on closer inspection, the bulk of those games occurred during the 2015-16 campaign. This past season Scherbak missed just 10 games due to a minor injury and a three-game call-up to the Montreal Canadiens.
In 2015-16, Scherbak had two significant injuries back-to-back which kept him out of the lineup for an extended period. When he finally returned his confidence was affected and he acted ‘gun-shy’ looking to avoid contact. IceCaps head coach temporarily moved Scherbak to centre to get him off the boards until he found his game.
Last summer, Scherbak stayed in Montreal to train with Pierre Allard, the Canadiens Strength and Conditioning coach. Scherbak also credits defenseman Andrei Markov for helping with his training regime and mindset. Nikita called it the “hardest working summer” ever as he improved his conditioning and approach to the game.
Rick Stephens, Editor-in-Chief of All Habs Hockey Magazine, has had an opportunity to closely monitor Scherbak’s progress over the past two years. Stephens acknowledges that Scherbak is the most offensively-talented player in St. John’s and one of the few who can carry the puck effectively making clean zone entries. But Stephens said that Scherbak made great strides in his development this past season in becoming a more complete player.
In the playoffs, Scherbak spoke of realizing the need to do things out of his normal comfort zone. As a result, he was seen contributing by blocking shots and delivering hits. Scherbak has also learned how to play the game being a target of the opposition recognizing the need to sometimes “take a hit to make a play.”
There is a proclivity among Canadiens fans to dismiss a player if they haven’t developed in an arbitrary window of time. Fans must realize that development is a process and that gains are not always defined by the scoresheet or a rapid progression to the big league.
Scherbak is still at an age where he is yet to ripen. His offensive potential is clear, putting itself on display, especially near the end of last season, putting up 13 goals and 41 points in 66 games (.62 points per game). At 6-feet-2-inches, and 190-pounds, he also has the physical build to be an important piece to this team down the road.
The Russian forward’s trajectory for the NHL might be slower than anticipated for fans or by the mainstream media. But those who have followed him game-by-game can appreciate the significant transformation that has taken place. Spending the better part of the 2017-18 season in Laval where he can dominant the AHL will pay dividends once Scherbak joins the Canadiens for good.
This young forward has immense talent and an opportunity to be an impact player in the NHL. The best thing the rest of us can do is to show patience.
Edited by Donna Sim