When he was selected at 26th overall in the 2014 NHL entry draft there were high expectations for Nikita Scherbak. An extremely gifted forward with a great wrist shot and outstanding playmaking skills, he lit up the scoresheet during his time in the Western Hockey League. His AHL adjustment has been somewhat of a rocky road, as injuries, a lack of consistency, and constant lineup rotations have slowed his development.
This season we saw larger glimpses of what Scherbak is capable of with the puck on his stick, and his offensive numbers blossomed as he stayed healthy for the majority of the year. After just 23 points in his rookie campaign, Scherbak posted 41 points in 66 games for the IceCaps, and even earned a three game stint in the NHL where he scored his first NHL goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While players like Charles Hudon and Chris Terry were rarely separated from each other, Scherbak often bounced all over the lineup, from playing third line minutes with Bobby Farnham, to eventually settling in along side Terry and Hudon for the second half of the year. It was clear the latter was the best spot for him, as the trio was a nightmare to contain due to Terry’s goal scoring ability, Scherbak’s shifty playmaking, and Hudon’s high end talent level.
When playing with the aforementioned players, as well as Michael McCarron, Scherbak thrived. This was especially true during a late October/early November run when it was nearly impossible to stop that line. Having skilled linemates that created space for Scherbak allowed his game to flourish. Defenders weren’t able to solely focus on shutting him down, giving Scherbak time to slow the pace of the game and set up scoring plays with ease.
While his playmaking ability is a huge asset, and arguably his best tool, his shot is a highly effective weapon when combined with his skating and puck handling skills. With such a lanky build, Scherbak easily hits top speed and has the coordination to duck in and out of defenders to score highlight reel goals with ease.
He can stop and start at the drop of a dime, something defenders have had a hard time dealing with, and that gives him just enough time to uncork his lethal wrist shot on net.
A work in progress
There are definitely flaws in Scherbak’s game that have caused him to draw the ire of his coaches at the AHL level. While last year he struggled with the defensive responsibilities of playing centre, this year saw an improvement in his play, but it’s still a work in progress.
There are times that he will be caught flat footed or out of position in the defensive zone, often turning his back to the puck to find his man instead of pivoting and following the play. His defensive lapses eventually led to him being benched for an entire period, before being put on the fourth line in a game his team was losing. Incidentally, following the benching he immediately scored a goal to tie that particular game.
His issues aren’t bad enough to warrant an benching, especially on a team that struggled to score for long stretches of the season, but it’s still an area where he needs to improve.
As we covered, Scherbak thrives best when placed on a line with other skilled forwards, giving him time and space to operate with the puck. Right now Scherbak struggles to be a difference maker on a line with below average players, specifically someone like Farnham, who became a frequent linemate when Sylvain Lefebvre shuffled his roster. Without another major scoring threat on that line, teams often concentrated on shutting down Scherbak, and pressured him into making poor decisions with the puck, leading to turnovers.
Which actually brings up the final issue with his game this year, Scherbak has to start playing at AHL/NHL speed or he’s going to struggle to break into Montreal’s lineup. When he has the puck Scherbak moves at a deliberate pace, looking for the saucer pass through traffic or the blind backhand into open space, reminiscent of Alex Galchenyuk. The reality is the young forward was desperately trying to create some form of offence for a team that desperately lacked firepower.
Nikita Scherbak is not a fully NHL-ready player right now, but he is very much on the cusp of becoming that player soon. Playing with injuries in a system that stifles creativity and punishes skilled players has slowed his development a little, but the young Russian is showing major flashes of talent.
He finds himself in a spot that Daniel Carr and Sven Andrighetto once held, right on the borderline of being a dominant AHL player, and an NHL ready prospect who could fill in for short stretches. If this season was any indication, then next year should see Scherbak take another major step forward, and become an offensive leader for the Rocket, and possibly push for a roster spot in Montreal.