Although Nikita Scherbak has just eight points in 20 games since returning to the St. John's IceCaps lineup in mid-January, he has made a definite impact.
On January 29, Scherbak was moved to centre, a position that he had previously not played in North America. Since then, he has started all but one game in the middle, typically flanked by Charles Hudon and Bud Holloway. Although his points totals are quite pedestrian, he has impressed, and continues to improve with each passing game.
When Scherbak is on the ice, he doesn't just want the puck, he needs it. Thanks to his combination of explosiveness, soft hands, and lengthy reach, Scherbak waltzes through the neutral zone with ease. At centre, Scherbak is forced to come deeper into the defensive zone, resulting in more touches.
Since the switch and gaining some more confidence, these exceptional rushes have occurred essentially every game.
Last season, Scherbak's two-way game improved immensely while playing in the rigid system of Kevin Constantine's Everett Silvertips. He went from being lackadaisical to usually engaged in his own zone.
This year has seen his two-way game continue to progress. At centre, he's forced to continually move his feet and pick up his assignments more diligently. While this has limited the odd-man rushes head-manned by him going one way, it has also restricted his nasty tendency to leave his own zone too early.
While there are many instances where Scherbak's positional play is below-average, no one will say he isn't trying. He has learned to consistently compete in his own zone. Given this, there's no doubt he will improve with time.
However, what really makes Scherbak so deadly is that he doesn't spend much time defending. Even when he's not getting points, he still spends the majority of ice time creating scoring chances, or at the very least getting offensive zone time. His ability to lead the rush makes him, by far, the best Montreal Canadiens prospect at consistently making controlled zone exits and entries.
In the offensive zone, Scherbak is just as great. Like a maniacal puppeteer, he can completely control the pace of a game. One second he will blow past defenders, forcing everyone to play catch-up. The next he brings the game to halt, freezing defenders and creating space. His shot is powerful and accurate, his dangles are incredibly unique and unpredictable, his skating is just as powerful as it is graceful, but it's his playmaking that is the best of all.
So why is it, despite all these great tools, that he has just 11 points in 29 games this season?
He went down after just eight games with an injury. He returned shortly after that, but was then taken out by a massive hit, and missed two months of action. Combine injury problems with the period of adjustment for junior players coming to the AHL (and playing a new position), and there's a solid explanation.
Beyond that, he hasn't had much luck. While he has created many chances, especially recently, his teammates can't bury them. Additionally, he could stand to fire more pucks on net, as he sits just 14th in shots on goal per game for the IceCaps.
This frustrating IceCaps team has become far more exciting to watch with the dynamic skill and energy that Scherbak has been bringing. Hopefully he can do the same with the Habs when the time comes.
Max Friberg proving value to IceCaps
Since getting shipped across the continent, Friberg has seen his points-per-game slip from 0.68 to 0.43 and his shots on goal per game from 2.36 to 1.48. Despite his regressing offensive totals, Friberg has become an excellent utility player for the IceCaps.
He has the versatility to play both wings, the awareness to play the penalty kill, and the vision to create chances on the second power play unit. When playing with highly-skilled players such as Scherbak or Hudon, Friberg demonstrates the necessary level of hockey sense and speed to keep up and contribute. When playing further down the lineup with grinders such as Gabriel Dumont or Brandon McNally, he consistently demonstrates that he can orchestrate plays and provide relentless two-way play.
While Friberg will never be known for his point totals, he's a solid complementary player at the AHL, with room to grow. His vision, complimented with his relentless motor, really shines nearly every game. An underrated aspect of his game is his bullish demeanor around the net, which is striking similar to Dumont's. He might not be a particularly good finisher, but his relentless effort and hand-eye coordination create chances around the net.
At the age of 23, Friberg's NHL window is closing, but at the very least, he has proven to be a valuable forward for the IceCaps.