After two years of showing fantastic flashes of elite talent at the AHL level, Nikita Scherbak shattered all expectations by not only becoming a point-per-game player in the AHL, but also forcing his way into the NHL lineup as a regular by season’s end. While he was one of the best players in St. John’s for the first two years of his AHL career, he never truly reached that next level - a consistent point generating player - like Charles Hudon did. Fast forward to this year, and Scherbak did just that, registering points in all but five of his games with the Laval Rocket this year.
In hindsight, despite relatively low expectations for Scherbak entering the season, it should have come as little surprise that the 22 year old Muscovite would break out this year. In last year’s player review and Top 25 Under 25 profile, it was noted that he was doing all the right things but just needed to fine tune a small part of his game in order to thrive. The biggest issue noted at that time was that Scherbak tended to overthink on plays, either trying to do too much as a stickhandler or forcing low percentage passes to try and make something happen.
Scherbak simplified his game a little bit this year: he was more commanding with his passes, he chose to shoot the puck more often, and made much quicker decisions with the puck compared to his first two years. His play was so strong that through six AHL games he had nine points, forcing the Canadiens into recalling him. His first stint with the Canadiens this season was a strong audition, even if the points didn’t flow.
Then, just as in the previous two seasons, Scherbak suffered a major injury. This time, it came in a game against the Los Angeles Kings. Scherbak would miss the next six weeks of action rehabbing his knee. When he had recovered enough to play, there was significant concern about how he would rebound in the AHL, as previous injuries had derailed strong starts in his previous seasons. Instead, Scherbak piled up 21 points in 20 games, carving out a place for himself in the NHL by the end of February, assuaging the fears of many fans about his health.
He proved to be a solid NHL addition, even if he had only six points at the NHL level. The skills he had shown in the CHL and AHL were on full display. He dangled through teams, scored beautiful goals, and looked like a player who is on the verge of becoming an offensive force very soon.
Better view of Nikita Scherbak dangling through the entire Capitals team. pic.twitter.com/PeMZpmC0Qj— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) March 24, 2018
That’s not just one NHL player he went through in the above clip, that’s three of them, and he gets off a prime scoring chance to top it all off. This clip is Scherbak at his absolute best, using his long stride to get by defenders, his quick hands to go around them, and his quick shot to put the puck on net. And he’s doing things like this with more regularity.
In the AHL he quickly found a home on the top line with Chris Terry and Adam Cracknell, and the trio was extremely hard to contain. Cracknell did the dirty work in the centre of the ice, freeing up space for Scherbak to utilize his playmaking skills, while Terry was there to finish off the Russian’s passes with startling efficiency. With Scherbak in the lineup, not only was the Rocket power play almost a sure bet to find the back of the net, their even strength prowess was something to be respected.
This year also showcased just how good of a playmaker Scherbak can be, as he was more patient with the puck and elected to utilize his shot more often instead of predictably deferring to the pass. Scherbak was able to pick out teammates across the zone without much issue, leaving teams scrambling to try and stop shots that they weren’t ready for.
Excellent power play work by Nikita Scherbak again, waits for his lane to open up and he find Matt Taormina for his third goal of the year. pic.twitter.com/5hoN6PjTap— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) January 13, 2018
The above play is a perfect example. In it, Scherbak takes the puck on the half boards and skates to the faceoff dot. From there, he keeps his head up, reads the play, then at the last minute picks out Matt Taormina. Before firing a perfect pass across the zone, Scherbak takes the time to look off the defenders. Taormina buries the shot before the goalie can react.
Scherbak’s shot is also highly underrated. While Chris Terry rightfully grabbed accolades for his goal scoring, Scherbak showed solid finishing ability in his own right. His wrist shot is highly accurate and when given space he can pick out the smallest of gaps around goaltenders.
Finally, his skating ability has truly begun to set him apart from some of the other prospects currently in the Canadiens system. His long frame gives him long strides, letting him reach top speed so quickly that opposing defences are caught far too often on their heels as he breaks in through the neutral zone.
In the above clip, Scherbak is going for a loose puck and has an opponent bearing down on him, yet with a little chip ahead he manages to accelerate away from his defender and past one defenceman in the offensive zone. This forces the other defender to try and cover the space of his partner, leaving Michael McCarron wide open for the tap-in goal.
However, Scherbak is still a young player, and with that will come some growing pains, especially for someone like the Russian who is capable of highlight reel plays whenever he touches the puck. He has started to find that consistency in the AHL, but the next step now is to transition his skills to the NHL level for next season and beyond. He showed glimpses of that this year, but still has just a little bit more growing to do. If his development continues the way it has, he’ll soon be knocking down the doors for a top six role in the NHL.
Part of that will also involve being more consistent in terms of effort level on the ice every night, as Scherbak has the tendency to lay low in games, and then make it known that he’s there. It’s not an issue if he’s playing in a lesser role, but if he’s going to be an offensive leader on the ice, he can’t be floating if things aren’t going his way. The narrative is that he looks lazy while playing sometimes, and that’s not a fair knock on him, because he is by all accounts one of the best players on the ice for the Rocket every night. Just because it looks like he isn’t trying hard, doesn’t mean he isn’t, given that his skating and effortless handling of the puck makes it look like he’s playing at half speed.
Overall, at the AHL level, there are almost no real complaints one can have about Nikita Scherbak, who finally looks to be hitting his stride as a professional. The lanky winger is only 22 years old and is getting better as time goes by, and after a long taste of NHL hockey this season, it’s not unrealistic to think that Scherbak has likely played his last AHL game. Time will tell, but it looks like Montreal found a steal at the end of the first round in Scherbak, and it’s going to be a treat to see just how far he can go this upcoming season.