Nikita Scherbak (Photo by TVA Sports)

by Blain Potvin, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

In a season that is lost, management must begin to look to the future. As I covered in a previous article about building towards the future, the young players who are seen as future NHL’ers must be given an opportunity to play against NHL opposition to gauge and improve their progression.

On June 27, 2014, the Montreal Canadiens stepped up to the podium in the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia ready to announce their first selection of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. With the 26th pick, the Canadiens were proud to select Nikita Scherbak of the Saskatoon Blades.

It was clear the young Russian was a naturally gifted offensive player. Few fans waited patiently to see Scherbak bring his talents to the Bell Centre, while many more doubted that he would ever pan out. Four years later, Canadiens fans have been treated to seeing Scherbak display the skill that was promised with the NHL club.

After being drafted, his junior rights were traded to WHL Everett where Scherbak would play under head coach Kevin Constantine who ran a pro style defensive system. While there, Nikita improved his offensive numbers and was much more defensively responsible. Once that season was complete, the 19-year-old Scherbak was deemed ready for the AHL.

During parts of three seasons with the Habs minor league affiliate, Scherbak’s game matured slowly. His injuries during each of his three pro seasons slowed his progression. However, while his AHL stats as a whole aren’t overly impressive with 27 goals, 67 assists for 94 points in 140 games played, his progression has been. In each of his three pro seasons he has taken steps forward in all aspects of his game.

Through a great deal of hard work and investment from the Laval Rocket coaching staff, Scherbak found confidence in his game. It showed up on the scoresheet with 30 points in 27 games played in the AHL this season. This earned him multiple call-ups this season.

Claude Julien most often limits the icetime and roles of his young players before he deems them worthy of playing to their strengths. Yet in this case, Scherbak was placed immediately in a scoring role playing on the wing with Jonathan Drouin and Alex Galchenuyk. Scherbak did not look out of place at all. In six games he had one goal, two assists and generated scoring chances nearly every shift while averaging about 14 minutes per game.

His true potential was seen in the game versus the Nashville Predators on February 10th. That Saturday night fans saw a player engaged. His skills were on display along with his work ethic. He was held off the scoresheet, but that had more to do with excellent goaltending than his own play. If that level of play is maintained consistently there is no doubt Scherbak belongs in the NHL.

His abilities, when given the opportunity, can improve opportunities for his linemates. Scherbak is able to pursue the puck with his excellent mobility. He uses his size and improving strength to gain possession. In addition, he is very good at transitioning to offence, generating controlled zone exits and entries.

Scherbak’s on-ice vision is becoming more acute as he acclimatizes himself to NHL speed and as his confidence grows. This allows him to use his excellent playmaking skills to set up scoring chances.

He also has a knack of driving to the net where he has an ability to pick up any pass made near him as well as looking for tip ins or rebounds. This is a skill that will prove to be effective over the course of an NHL career as the majority of NHL goals are scored within 10 feet of the net and Scherbak enjoys being in that high danger zone.

At the moment however, Scherbak has been deferring to his veteran linemates too often and hasn’t been shooting as much as he did in his time in the AHL. Yet this is a habit that will be broken as he plays more games and receives more time on ice.

It bears repeating that Scherbak is a dogged puck pursuer. This tenacity to gain possession makes him an effective defensive player as well. His on ice vision, mobility and speed allow him to cover more territory defensively. He reads plays extremely well and has an ability to break up passing plays. As mentioned, he is also very effective in defensive zone exits, an aspect of the game the Canadiens have had a nightmarishly poor time with this season.

All that isn’t to say Scherbak’s defensive play isn’t without issues. He still tends to overcommit at times and has a habit of holding onto the puck for a fraction of a second too long. As well, he attempts to make transition passes even in the times his only play is a simple clearing play. These are entirely coachable deficiencies.

As a former first round selection of the Canadiens, Scherbak should be given more opportunities to develop his game at the NHL level. It is up to Julien now to provide him the role and icetime in all situations so as to allow Scherbak to build his confidence at this level to be ready for next season. As fans have seen, Julien is doing just that as Scherbak’s time on ice grows so does his confidence, the game versus Vegas showed fans that Scherbak is capable of playing a 200-foot game as well as provide jaw dropping skill when given more ice time than even Max Pacioretty.

After all, patience with young players is needed. It’s difficult to see a young player like Adrian Kempe of the Los Angeles Kings, selected after Scherbak, having had more success at piercing an NHL lineup so far this season. Yet, with the season the Canadiens and their fans are enduring, Scherbak may become one of the few bright spots in an otherwise forgettable season.