If the 2017-18 season proved anything for Nikita Scherbak, it was that very little should be taken from how a player performs in training camp. After a tough start in the pre-season, he was part of the first group sent down to the Laval Rocket. Just a few games into the AHL season, he was able to show that his start in camp was only a misstep, and his potential remained high.
He spent very little time in Laval before injuries to the big club forced the Montreal Canadiens’ hand, and he was called back up. A knee injury just two games into his stint could have been the end to his time in the NHL, but his strong play after his recovery warranted a second recall of the year.
He spent much of the latter portion of the season in Montreal, able to contribute enough to justify his inclusion in the lineup. He played on the third line and used his skill to help the Habs have a deeper attack than they did without him. This is probably the bottom end of Scherbak’s potential, with the second line being the ideal deployment to get the most out of his skill set.
Middle-six forwards are vital to a team’s success, and Scherbak claiming a spot there would be a boost for the Habs while they are rebuilding and beyond.
During his two years in the WHL, he played for the worst team in the league before moving to a team that was not known for producing offence, thugh his acquisition helped change that. He was able to produce at over a point-per-game pace for the first time this season in the AHL, and his NHL totals are respectable.
With offence coming wherever he’s played, it may just be a matter of time until his production with the Habs takes off.
Scherbak is one of the least divisive players in the Top 25 Under 25. It is obvious that he is a talented player — not a franchise star, but a forward with middle-six potential who can contribute on offence.
Those who ranked him higher probably valued his place as a young forward in an organization which is rebuilding (no matter what the Habs claim) while those who ranked him lower likely looked at his results in his professional career and wondered just how likely he was to reach the potential he showed in Junior.
Top 25 Under 25 History
* tied with Noah Juulsen
Scherbak and Noah Juulsen were tied in last year’s rankings, with the forward moving ahead by virtue of a higher top vote. This year the margin is much more substantial: 0.143 points. The late-first-rounders from the 2014 and 2015 NHL drafts are regarded as having virtually equal value in the organization, even though they are about as different as two skaters can be.
Scherbak hangs on to a spot in the Top 10, where he has found himself since the 2014 draft. He has been slowly slipping to the bottom of it since 2015, and will need a good performance this season to have that honour at this point next summer.
He has been good at creating offence for himself since the Habs selected him from the Saskatoon Blades. He was the only real threat on the WHL team that year, and it was reflected in how he played. Now that he plays with more talented weapons, he has been adapting to use his teammates more, and is becoming a good playmaker at the pro level.
While he might not be the most profilic board player, he does get into the dirty areas, including the middle of the ice. Going back to his Junior days, he was known for getting to the slot before releasing his shot, usually to great success. He has diversified his attack since then, but he is still fearless and capable of cutting to the middle to increase his options for an offensive play.
Scherbak is far from a perfect player, as is usually the case with any prospect drafted 26th overall. One point of concern is his defence. While that aspect is not integral for a winger, it is important enough that Scherbak has to keep working on staying in the play in his own end to help win back possession.
He also needs to work on not cutting to the middle with his head down. There are some less-skilled defencemen who exist to run skilled players trying to create offence. The good news is that Scherbak has the ability to create offence in different ways, especially when paired with talented teammates.
It also remains to be seen if he can consistently produce at the NHL level. His play in the AHL was encouraging last season, and he will now have to show off his offensive game with the Habs.
A stronger training camp will help make a good impression in his first season as a waiver-eligible player. Injuries to Andrew Shaw and Paul Byron should hand him an NHL role to begin the year, giving him a great opportunity to ease into the season with everyone else and show off his creativity.
No longer able to be freely sent to the minors, Scherbak can’t rely on lower-level competition to help build up his confidence. He will need to hit the ground running when the pre-season begins in a few weeks’ time, and show that he’s ready to be an everyday player.