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.
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
|Controlled Success Rate||88.89%||2nd|
|Controlled%(of total attempts)||68.57%||2nd|
|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 Shot Contributions||12.2||1st|
|Primary Shot Assists||11.434||1st|
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.
Nikita Scherbak keeps his point streak going, with a perfect pass to Daniel Audette on the power play pic.twitter.com/yBgoeb9ChO— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) October 21, 2017
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.
What a gorgeous breakout and scoring chance by the Habs, Mete and Scherbak are looking outstanding tonight pic.twitter.com/8McmIQPzsS— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) October 27, 2017
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?
Laval Rocket shot rates - further to the upper right, the better.— Mitch Brown (@MitchLBrown) December 4, 2017
There's McCarron, and then there's everyone else. Grégoire's strong play reflected with the third-best shot generation rate.
Trending up: Ebbing, Veilleux, Waked.
Trending down: Audette, Baun, Lernout, Terry. pic.twitter.com/BqQwue9h9m
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.