by Mike Chen on 08/04/09 at 03:43 PM ET
At first glance, I have a hard time trying to figure out why an arbitrator awarded Nikolai Zherdev $3.9 million. That’s a pretty hefty price tag for such an enigmatic player, and it feels like it’s paying more for potential than anything else.
Here’s the thing. If I’m a GM, I’d have a difficult time taking Zherdev at even his qualifying number of $3.25 million. The guy can be Pavel Datsyuk-style brilliant with stickhandling on one shift, then be a useless pylon on the next. These days, the salary cap is too restrictive to give up significant space for an unknown quantity.
I think what is more telltale about Zherdev’s grit (or lack thereof) is his coaching history. I can understand if he went nowhere under Doug MacLean; as amusing as MacLean can be when he’s on sports radio, he’s always been a one-hit coaching wonder in my book. But when Ken Hitchcock took over the Blue Jackets, I figured it was make or break time with Zherdev. In Dallas, Hitchcock instilled defensive responsibility in Mike Modano and roped in Sergei Zubov’s freelancing tendencies, eventually transforming him into one the league’s best blueliners. In Columbus, part of his job would be to elevate Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev into complete players.
We can probably all agree that he was successful with Nash. Zherdev? Not so much; he had his spurts but ultimately it was an exercise in futility—despite his upside.
When John Tortorella came to New York, I figured he’d either get Zherdev to go home crying or he’d beat some sensibility into him. The thing with Torts is that he favors an up-tempo style and he allows for creativity if you bust your ass for him. That’s how his Safe Is Death philosophy helped propel Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and Brad Richards to a Stanley Cup. And I think that’s a reasonable trade off for any coach to ask for—work hard and you’ll get the offensive freedom you want. In any case, Zherdev finished the season with five points in his last ten games (including just one assist in his last five games). In the first-round series against the Capitals, Zherdev had no points. It’s important to note that Zherdev often played around 15-16 minutes a game under Tortorella, so it’s not like he didn’t have an opportunity to make an impact.
The only time I’ve seen an enigmatic player transform in a near-instant was when Ron Wilson coached the Sharks. Wilson was trying to find something, anything to get through to talented-but-lazy Alex Korolyuk during the 2003-04 season. Korolyuk is a pretty obscure name in the NHL archives but if you saw him when he was on, the raw talent was obvious—blistering speed, sick hands, and a heavy shot, all coupled with no desire to backcheck and a tendency to freelance. During the last few minutes of a critical game, Wilson tapped Korolyuk for the PK. He told the young Russian that his teammates were counting on him during this shift. The added weight of the moment, and the newfound responsibility somehow clicked with Korolyuk, and he did something totally foreign to him: he dove to block a shot.
That little moment transformed Korolyuk. For the remainder of the season, he was probably the Sharks most dynamic forward, and his hustle was everywhere. It wasn’t just a light bulb going on over his head, it was like a freakin’ generator came to life. He told the media that in that moment, he finally got it, and he saw the respect and appreciation of his teammates after that game. Korolyuk eventually disappeared to Russian hockey just when he was coming into his own, though he said that if he came back to the NHL, he’d only play for Ron Wilson.
Now Zherdev may find that one coach that ultimately gives him that Wilson-Korolyuk transformation, but I get the feeling that he’ll be one of those forever-limbo guys, stuck between 40-60 points despite having the potential for 80+ if he just got his crap together. Does any other team want to take on cap-heavy project? With today’s cap restrictions, I have a hard time believing so.
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