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September and October will make or break Nikita Scherbak’s season

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the general failure of the Montreal Canadiens’ 2017-18 season, the year did see several silver linings emerge as the coaching staff experimented and presented opportunities. One of these was Nikita Scherbak.

After an early-season knee injury that saw him sidelined for six weeks, the young Russian winger broke out in Laval with a point-per-game-plus season before finishing the campaign as a regular with Montreal. Six points in 26 games may not look particularly impressive, but Scherbak tantalized fans with displays of skill and flair that the Canadiens were hoping would eventually emerge when they drafted him back in 2014.

That having been said, despite finishing last year on a high note, Scherbak’s place on the opening-day roster for the Canadiens is far from a certainty. With Tomas Plekanec’s return to the Canadiens, it’s probably safe to assume that the Czech will centre a line which will be tasked with the brunt of the defensive duties on a nightly basis; no place for Scherbak.

This leaves six possible openings for the young Russian, but as Julian McKenzie noted in his piece earlier this week, the Habs are experiencing a glut of offensively capable wingers. Most optimistically, Scherbak would slot seventh on the Habs’ winger depth chart, behind Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, Artturi Lehkonen, Max Domi, Charles Hudon, and Paul Byron. This best-case scenario assumes that the likes of Joel Armia, Nicolas Deslauriers, and Andrew Shaw are prioritized for flanking Plekanec on the Habs’ shutdown line. In a worst-case situation, Scherbak would be ninth, as Armia and Shaw slide in front of him.

Is Scherbak doomed to follow the path of Charles Hudon then: to continue to play in a league he has outgrown before finally sticking at the NHL level?

Well, there are worse paths to follow, I suppose, especially now that the Laval Rocket have a competent coaching and development staff. But such a trajectory is probably not what an ambitious Scherbak would want for himself.

Luckily for him, he has an opportunity to stake his claim.

Paul Byron and Andrew Shaw both underwent off-season surgical procedures — Byron for his shoulder and Shaw for his left knee — putting them in jeopardy of missing the start of the season. With these two out and a Max Pacioretty trade still looming over the horizon, Scherbak suddenly finds himself potentially fifth on the depth chart behind Gallagher, Domi, Lehkonen, and Hudon. While the Muscovite still probably won’t find himself in the top-six to start the season, a place next to Jacob de la Rose or Matthew Peca, averaging 13-16 minutes a night, is hardly out of the question.

This is Scherbak’s opportunity to show the coaching staff that he deserves to further hone his craft at the NHL level; that he has nothing to prove in the AHL.

The outcome of Scherbak’s fall trial is not solely contingent on the winger’s personal efforts. For him to have the best shot of succeeding, the Canadiens need to give him an environment capable of nurturing his gifts.

In Scherbak’s situation, I am reminded of Jakub Vrana, the Washington Capitals prospect who spent the regular season largely consigned to third- and fourth-line minutes, starting the playoffs playing between five and 10 minutes a night. Vrana was at most an afterthought on the fourth line until Tom Wilson’s suspension in the Pittsburgh series opened a place in the top-six. When Devante Smith-Pelly couldn’t stick next to Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin, Vrana got his chance.

Like with Vrana, Nikita Scherbak’s latent abilities are not going to be augmented by playing next to the likes of Byron Froese or Nicolas Deslauriers. Scherbak is a player who plays defence by hemming the opposition in their own zone, something that he’s unlikely to accomplish with any proficiency if his linemates don’t have the offensive acumen to support him. Fortunately, the Canadiens do have the personnel to play with Scherbak, especially with Matthew Peca’s addition giving Montreal a chance to compose a top nine rather than just a top six.

When training camp opens, it’ll be up to Scherbak to seize his opportunity, and up to the Canadiens to recognize the support that the player will need to fully utilize his talents.

Hopefully, both sides will live up to their end of the bargain.