Even if he only played a total of 52 games for both the Montreal Canadiens and the Laval Rocket during the 2017-18 season, the year could still be described as a positive one for Nikita Scherbak. The Russian averaged better than a point per game for the Rocket (1.15), and displayed flashes of the skill that fans had been waiting on since he was drafted in 2014.
The first-rounder started last year’s training camp expressing his desire to be among the Canadiens’ top-six forwards. Unfortunately for him, a lacklustre camp and a variety of options ahead of him on the wing had him start the season in the American Hockey League with the Laval Rocket.
Once he picked up nine points in his first six games, including at least one point in each of them, the Canadiens deemed him worthy of a call-up in late October.
His NHL stint lasted just a game and a half after he suffered an injury against the Los Angeles Kings. Scherbak then had knee surgery and was sidelined until mid-December. It took until February before the Canadiens recalled him again, but the Russian continued his excellent play in Laval in the meantime.
Scherbak was primarily used in a bottom-six role for the Canadiens, but occasionally creeped up into the top-six at times and got to ride shotgun with Jonathan Drouin and Alex Galchenyuk, who assisted on his first goal of the year. Otherwise, he spent a lot of time alongside bottom-six forward Logan Shaw.
Scherbak’s finest hour with the Canadiens this past season may have come on February 17, 2018, in a 6-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. He clearly stood out as one of the team’s best players on the night. The Habs gave him over 16 minutes of ice time, which he used to register a game-high four shots, and scored one of the best goals of the season.
He was rewarded for shooting the puck, something he’ll have to do more of next season. The game against the Golden Knights was one of three games all year where he had four shots or more. He failed to pick up a shot in eight of his 26 NHL games last season — nearly a third of his games.
The Russian would pick up three more goals after the Golden Knights game, ending his season with four, and a total of six points before a concussion ended his year in early April. They’re modest statistics, of course, and are only just a slight improvement on the lone goal he scored in three games during the 2016-17 season, but on more than one occasion he showed that he possesses NHL-level skill.
Naturally, showing this level of promise should be enough to claim a place with the big club come training camp, and the fact that he’s now eligible for waivers should solidify that spot. However, nothing is certain. Similarly to last year, there seems to be a logjam of right -wingers in front of Scherbak, including newcomer Joel Armia. The six-foot-three Finn will soak up minutes in the bottom six for the Canadiens.
Paul Byron’s recovery from shoulder surgery will be key here, as he’s projected to be on the mend until about mid-October. If Byron is not ready for the start of the season, Scherbak will be presented with his best opportunity to crack the Habs’ top-six. If last season was any indication, head coach Claude Julien will give him a chance to show what he can do.
It will also be interesting to see which linemates he’ll play with. Scherbak generated more shots during five-on-five play with Drouin and Galchenyuk than with any other combo. Galchenyuk has now departed for warmer climes in Arizona, and not being able to count on such a talented player may hurt Scherbak’s game, unless he can work his magic with someone else. (Surprisingly, among the worst combinations (low shot rate for, high shot rate against) he was a part of last season? Scherbak and Charles Hudon.)
The 2017-18 season gave Habs fans and management some reassurance about Nikita Scherbak. The 2018-19 campaign will be his chance to build upon that experience, whatever the Canadiens’ plans are with him.