Nikita Scherbak made his professional debut last season with the St. John’s IceCaps, and although his offensive talent became immediately self-evident, it was his play without the puck that was a concern at the start of the year. Scherbak spent the better part of the season focusing on weaknesses in his game, being put more in learning situations, such as shutdown-line duties on a trio with Gabriel Dumont and Jacob de la Rose, to playing centre on the second line later on in the season; a position he had never played before.
Deploying Scherbak in positions he is not accustomed to obviously had an impact on his statistics, but it hopefully did wonders to make him more of a complete player, which is necessary if he wants to make it to the National Hockey League.
The season started well enough for the youngster. Unfortunately, during the eighth game of the season. he was rocked with a clean open-ice hit by the Toronto Marlies’ Viktor Loov. The injuries sustained by that hit, combined with a nagging ankle injury, put Scherbak out of action for a while, forcing him to miss 27 of the next 28 games while he recovered with athletic therapists in Montreal.
When he returned, he was thrust into the centre position on the top line with Bud Holloway and Charles Hudon, and that line scored seven goals over the last few games of the season.
All 19 panelists ranked Scherbak, and generally agreed that he belongs in the top 10, somewhere between fifth and tenth place, the outlier votes being one vote for 11th place and two votes for fourth place.
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This is Scherbak’s third year in the ranking, which is remarkable because he is only 20 years old. Following his draft in 2014, he made his debut at number six, and in 2015 climbed up to fourth overall on the heels of an 82-point season in his final junior year. This year’s drop is not unexpected given the difficult first professional season, but it’s also not significant enough to be concerned about his future.
He’s talented, agile, and has a wicked wrist shot. These are but a few of Scherbak’s heralded qualities, all of which are required to be a top-six winger in the NHL. His creativity in the offensive zone is immediately apparent, as he looks to produce scoring chances at every opportunity.
Something that was evident even back to his days with the Saskatoon Blades, Scherbak is a very confident puck-handler when leaving the defensive end, crossing the offensive blue line, and especially when leading the rush through the neutral zone. That standout ability, helped by his lanky frame giving him a long reach to protect the puck, remains intact as he enters his professional career, and will serve him well in his effort to separate himself from the other prospects looking to earn a spot on the NHL roster.
Listed at 175 pounds for July’s development camp, Scherbak is arriving at training camp at an imposing 192 pounds. He clearly hit the gym this summer and bulked up in order to be more of a physical presence.
Defensive positioning is the glaring weak link in Scherbak’s game, and therefore where he needs to continue to focus his development, while he’ll also be relied upon this season to put up some points if the IceCaps are to finally make the playoffs.
He seemed to be putting it all together by the end of the season, when he was playing his best hockey. Despite finishing a team worst -26 for the season, he was just a -2 over the last 11 games.
Last season’s experiment of playing at centre hopefully comes to an end this year so that he can once again play on right wing where he has spent years developing. Should he be back at centre, his offensive numbers will probably fail to impress once again as he adjusts to the requirements and responsibilities of playing at the tougher position.
An injury-free season in the AHL will do marvels in helping Scherbak develop his overall game to build upon his undeniable offensive talent. It would be surprising to see him get the call up to the NHL this season for that reason. He is definitely self-assured enough to succeed in his goals of making the NHL, and it looks like he is having fun along the way.
Long term, he definitely has top-six potential, but it’s still unclear if the Montreal Canadiens will try to continue to develop him as a centre, or whether he will return to his natural right-wing position for the upcoming season.
If he can exhibit more defensive responsibility, perhaps the IceCaps will use him more intensely. He projects to play on the second line this season, perhaps on a line with Chris Terry and Martin Réway, which should be an offensively dynamic line.