Nikita Scherbak made the transition from junior to professional hockey, but it was a difficult year for the 2014 first-round draft pick.
The season started with promise as Scherbak did not look out of place during the Rookie Tournament in London, showcasing his speed and puck-handling skills. But an obvious need to gain experience at the professional level was needed as he tried to do too much on his own a few too many times.
Unfortunately, that experience was limited to only eight games of the St. John's IceCaps season before he sustained a lower-body injury that forced him to miss three weeks of AHL action. His return in mid-November was celebrated as the true kick off to his rookie year, however it was cut short with a devastating open ice hit by Toronto Marlies forward Viktor Loov.
Scherbak ended up missing the next 22 games for the IceCaps, in what the club ended up clarifying was a re-aggravation of an ankle injury that had ailed him since training camp. The Canadiens decided to shut him down completely to allow him to recover from this an injury (and surely any after-effects of that hit).
When Scherbak returned to the IceCaps lineup on January 16, he was a welcome infusion of offence to a team that saw a lot of regular players starting to get recalled to the Montreal Canadiens as a result of injuries. Mark Barberio and Jacob de la Rose were gone, and Sven Andrighetto and Daniel Carr has just returned for what would end up being a final stint in the AHL.
Upon his return, Head Coach Sylvain Lefebvre decided to challenge Scherbak by putting him in the unfamiliar position of centre on a line with Charles Hudon and Bud Holloway for eight games. This incredibly gifted offensive line produced a mere seven goals over eight games, and sported a terrible -14 statistic.
The coach's persistence in keeping this line together was clearly to help improve Scherbak's defensive game while giving him the tools to succeed offensively, but it was too big an ask of the 20-year-old; especially since the rest of the team was decimated by injuries and call-ups, thus leaving that line the sole focus of opponents' best defensive units.
In all, Scherbak played 19 games at centre, until eventually transitioning back to wing, bouncing around various line combinations until finally landing back with Hudon and Michael McCarron. That's where things really came together for the forward.
Scherbak played 48 games for the IceCaps this season, scoring seven goals and adding 16 assists, but with a dismal differential of -26. He was not recalled to the Canadiens this year, primarily due to the known deficiency in his defensive game.
He himself has stated that he intends to spend the summer and next season improving his defensive skills, realizing that he is still another season away from being considered NHL ready, and that admission is nothing but positive news for his development.
Scherbak will need at least another season of professional hockey at the AHL level, in which there should be considerable improvement in his all-around game. His rookie season may have been difficult and filled with challenges, but he emerged at the end of the season looking the strongest he had all year, showing that he's willing to put in the work and is dedicated to one day being the player that the Canadiens hoped he would be when they drafted him.