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Nikita Scherbak’s return will be crucial in getting the Laval Rocket on track

The young Russian has been sidelined, but his return should help fix what is ailing the Rocket.

Club de hockey Canadien, Inc.

There are no two ways around it right now: the Laval Rocket are freefalling in the AHL standings, having lost 10 of their last 11 games.

The goaltending has started to round a corner. Charlie Lindgren’s return from the NHL helped to shore that department up, but he is currently having his hard work undone by a lacking penalty kill. Meanwhile, the offence has been mired in a terrible run of form of late, and it’s been an ongoing issue since the Montreal Canadiens poached Nikita Scherbak and Michael McCarron early in the season. The situation grew steadily worse as injuries to Artturi Lehkonen and Ales Hemsky prompted further recalls, including Byron Froese, Nicolas Deslauriers, and Daniel Carr.

While it looked like there were no immediate plans for Scherbak to return to the AHL, due in large part to his strong play in the NHL, he sustained a serious knee injury and was sidelined for six weeks. With his surgery successful, and now fully healed, the young Muscovite was returned to the AHL, and it couldn’t be happening at a better time for the Rocket.

In six AHL games at the beginning of the year, Scherbak was scoring at over a point-per-game pace, with one goal and eight assists. It was easily the skilled winger’s best start to his professional career, and in a limited sample had him trending toward shattering his previous AHL bests.

Andrew Zadarnowski

It’s an extremely limited sample size in the AHL this year, but the trends are very apparent: when Scherbak hits the ice he starts driving offence in the right direction.

The biggest knock on his play in his first two professional seasons was that he wasn’t selfish enough, and needed to shoot the puck more often to start producing at a higher level. This season his total shot numbers are up, and he ranks near or at the top of the team in a variety of shooting metrics overall, adding to his already impressive offensive repertoire.

Despite not always passing the eye test in his first two years, he was still one of the better players for Sylvain Lefebvre since he left his junior career behind. Taking a look at Scherbak’s underlying possession number shows just how much of an impact he was having for the Rocket this year in addition to his offensive totals.

Nikita Scherbak Stats per 60

Entries Value Team Rank
Entries Value Team Rank
Controlled 16.38 1st
Controlled Success Rate 88.89% 2nd
Controlled%(of total attempts) 68.57% 2nd
Exits Value Team Rank
Controlled 11.9 14th
Controlled Success Rate 90.91% 7th
Controlled%(of total attempts) 73.33% 6th
Shot Contributions Value Team Rank
Dangerous Shot Assists 3.804 1st
Dangerous Shots 6.098 9th
Dangerous Shot Contributions 12.2 1st
Primary Shot Assists 11.434 1st
Shot Attempts 12.96 4th
Shot Contributions 24.39 1st
Corsi% 58.02 2nd
Corsi rel 7.3
Stats via Mitch Brown

He ranks first in both dangerous shot contributions and fourth in shot attempts. When he was in the lineup to start the year, the Rocket were handily outshooting opponents in nearly every game. Since then the offence has struggled to find its feet in games, having issues generating shots.

Perhaps most telling are Scherbak’s shot contribution stats, where he shines through as an offensive star for the Rocket. In the dangerous shot assists category, which tracks passes to the slot, Scherbak ranks first, and given his assist numbers through the start of the year, it’s hard to argue that Laval hasn’t sorely missed him in the lineup.

Take for example the following power-play goal by Daniel Audette. Scherbak receives a pass across the slot from Audette, takes a few seconds, and sends the puck back across for Audette to one-time home.

Scherbak’s biggest strengths lie in his skating ability and high-level playmaking in the offensive zone. His entries ranking near the top of the team indicate he’s utilizing his long strides and puck-handling to carry the puck into the offensive zone, as opposed to chipping the puck in and then going in to retrieve it.

Even at the NHL level, he uses his speed to get the puck out quickly, get deep into the zone, and creates chances for his team.

With the AHL lineup depleted of its star players, the Rocket have fallen back into old habits. With a roster currently made up of former bottom-six players and ECHL call-ups, it’s understandable why Lefebvre might have tweaked the system to fit his nightly lineup choices.

Where can he help?

The answer is fairly obvious. Nikita Scherbak should be immediately placed back on the top line in Laval, hopefully alongside a healthy Michael McCarron, who should be nearly recovered from a gruesome skate cut to the ear. Their combination last year, alongside either Charles Hudon, Chris Terry, or Audette, was a driving force in the St. John’s IceCaps qualifying for the playoffs.

Obviously Hudon is in the NHL this year, and the other top offensive player and team captain, Byron Froese, is anchoring the fourth line in Montreal, so who fits in the open spot?

McCarron and Scherbak are both trending in the right direction in terms of shot rates, so keeping them together is almost a forgone conclusion. That leaves an open spot on the wing, and with the Rocket being in dire straits for offence, the first option would likely be Terry, who currently leads the team in scoring. The only issue would be that defensively, Terry is lacking a bit, but usually makes up for that with his obvious goal-scoring prowess.

Another option could be Kyle Baun who, despite a recent scoring slump, has been one of the Rocket’s best options in the offensive zone. Much like Scherbak, Baun does well in suppressing shots against and generates chances in the offensive zone as well. Adding him to the top line could very well jump-start his offensive game.

The final option is one that would have been considered a bit shocking at the start of this season. Jeremy Grégoire started the year on the fourth line, but with all the roster volatility he shot up the lineup. Instead of falling into his previous, more pugilistic habits, Grégoire has focused more on his offensive game, and has rewarded his coaches’ faith in him with his best offensive season so far.

Nikita Scherbak being healthy and returning to the Rocket lineup is the shot in the arm the team needs. They’ve faced an uphill battle to get back on track, with multiple games against the AHL’s best teams, and several ECHL call-ups filling in.

Regardless of his linemates, Scherbak should instantly have a positive impact not only with his exceptional abilities back in play, but also by taking the pressure off of Terry and defenceman Matt Taormina to drive all the offence, freeing them up for more chances. It’s not too late to salvage the playoff hopes after a massive slump, and his return should help on that front.