Nikita Scherbak is one of the most skilled prospects to be a part of the Montreal Canadiens organization in recent years. Falling into Montreal’s lap at 26th overall in 2014, he’s yet to realize his full potential after his first two professional seasons.
While he has shown stretches of being a star in the making, he has his growing pains still, which has drawn the ire of his head coach on multiple occasions. Even with his hiccups, Scherbak is growing as a player and in this last season took a major step toward being the best player possible.
Scherbak added 18 points to his stat line from his rookie season in addition to getting his first taste of the NHL, scoring his first goal in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It’s easy to look at his point totals and be slightly disappointed with his overall production, but there are extenuating factors at play. For one, Scherbak was bounced all over the lineup until the second half of the season, where he found a nice home alongside Chris Terry and Charles Hudon. Even during the early part of the season when he was on Michael McCarron’s wing he found a good deal of success.
When asked to play harsher defensive minutes, or when sent out for a shift after being benched for an entire period, Scherbak struggled, especially if he had to shoulder the bulk of the work on his line. Giving him stable linemates that fit his playing style unleashed his potential, and that should be noted for this upcoming season.
Scherbak was ranked fairly consistently by our panel of voters this year, with everyone having him inside the top 15. Just three panellists had him outside of the top 10, with the low vote being 13th overall. His highest placement was fifth, while the majority had him slotted from sixth to 10th.
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Despite a strong step forward in his professional game, Scherbak dropped one spot in the rankings this year. It’s more a case of the players above him taking larger steps either toward or within their NHL careers.
Since being drafted in 2014, he has been ranked in the top seven every single season, topping out so far at number four.
Scherbak is an abundantly skilled offensive powerhouse when he’s playing at his best, and was arguably the St. John’s IceCaps’ second-most-talented forward behind Hudon. In terms of pure skill it could be argued that Scherbak has more tools in his kit, even if he hasn’t mastered them to the level Hudon has.
Scherbak’s best asset, and one that made him a lethal option for the IceCaps, is his top-notch playmaking ability. He likes to break into the offensive zone with the puck, and immediately slow the play down so he can evaluate his options for either a pass or shot. He reads plays very well, and when he has the time or space he more often than not can make opposing teams pay.
While he is likely to generate more assists than goals over his career, it should be noted that he possesses a very good shot. It’s an extremely underrated part of his game, due mostly to the fact he’s usually looking to pass instead. He’s no Max Pacioretty, however, preferring a more deliberate release as opposed to a quick-snap launch.
Scherbak rips this one past Demko for his 2nd goal of the night pic.twitter.com/rKoWjCStIZ— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) November 2, 2016
The above goal is a perfect representation of how good Scherbak is when he has the puck on his stick. He breaks into the zone with speed and then dials it back so he can get to work. He looks off the defender as if he is going to pass, then uncorks an absolute rocket of a shot into the upper corner of the net.
He does something similar in the clip below after receiving a pass from Sven Andrighetto. Scherbak immediately slows the play down, finds a soft spot, and gets a defender out of position before firing a shot into the back of the net.
Scherbak responds to his benching with his ninth goal of the year! pic.twitter.com/3isgqnG0BC— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 1, 2016
Not only is Scherbak an extremely talented scoring winger, he is able to make his teammates better — and not just a little better. He was a major catalyst in the production of whomever happened to be on his line that night.
Scherbak at 5v5 this season: 7.69 CF Rel%, 9.7 GF Rel%. Virtually every IceCap player received a sizeable GF% boost when with Scherbak.— Mitch Brown (@MitchLBrown) August 10, 2017
Despite him being a huge boost to his teammates’ offensive totals, Scherbak doesn’t always pass the eye test. He sometimes appears lackadaisical in his efforts, and that can result in turnovers in the offensive zone. While it’s true that he could learn to handle his defensive minutes better, the narrative that has emerged of Scherbak being lazy is overblown.
He can be a bit careless with the puck, which is why he ends up with so many turnovers. It’s not the result of lazy play, but in fact the opposite for the young Muscovite, as his giveaways tend to come from trying to keep a play alive a little longer (sometimes unadvisedly) to create a scoring chance, or from trying to make a difficult pass to a linemate.
That is probably his biggest weakness overall. He tends to favour the high-risk play that has a lower chance of succeeding over simpler options. He’ll carry the puck into the zone and then try to beat a defender one-on-one before attempting to pick out a teammate with a pass. This doesn’t always pan out, and he will lose the puck, which can be infuriating for those who value the north-south, dump-and-chase, grind-in-the-corners style.
He could easily choose the safer option, but it’s hard to fault a player for trying to use his skill to create quality chances for his team.
Scherbak has two more years left on his entry-level contract, and after a rough rookie season took a major step forward last year in St. John’s. This year he’s likely going to be the key piece in a retooled Laval Rocket lineup.
Much like Daniel Carr and Andrighetto in previous years, he figures to be one of the first in line for a call-up to the NHL this year, capable of a brief stint for an injection of skill, but not quite ready for full-time big-league duty.
At this stage, seeing him step up to a major role like he did in the second half of last year is what the Canadiens are looking for. Surrounding him with linemates that play off his strengths would be a wise move, and one we’re likely to see again.
Nikita Scherbak is going to be leaned on as an offensive leader in Laval, and should be making a push for NHL time like his counterparts in previous seasons. With his high level of skill, and a fresh crop of talented players around him, the sky is the limit for what he can do this season and in the future.