Scherbak: At home in Montreal
The Russian forward has been spending his summer in the city and hopes to stick with the big club come Octoberby Dan Braverman @CanadiensMTL / canadiens.com
MONTREAL - It's a 30-40 minute subway ride from Nikita Scherbak's family home in suburban Moscow to his dad's downtown gym, a trip he frequently made last summer when he spent some time on his native soil.
When the Habs' first-round pick (26th overall) in 2014 first returned to Russia, he gave himself a few weeks off to catch up with friends and family before training again. His workouts would be followed by a daily trip to Gorky Park, where the self-described basketball fanatic would link up with his friends for a game of hoops.
The goal of Scherbak's summer regimen in 2017 was to stay in shape so that he wouldn't miss a step when he jumped on the ice for training camp in the fall. And although the 22-year-old set his sights on making the big club to start the 2017-18 season, things didn't go exactly as planned.
Scherbak admits he was dissatisfied with his camp, which resulted in his being sent down to Laval to start the season. But, he knew that the hard work he put in all summer would come in handy before too long.
"Personally, I think I over-thought it a little bit, especially at the main camp. I didn't have a great camp. Obviously, everyone knows it and there was a lot of talk about it. I personally didn't like it," admitted Scherbak, who was held without a point, posted a minus-1 differential and registered eight shots on goal in three preseason games with the Canadiens. "It's in the past, but maybe I could've done something better, something else. But you have to have a short memory in hockey, that's just the way it is.
"I had a good summer of training. I knew it was going to pay off. I was mentally prepared to make the big team, and it was my goal to play a few games with the Canadiens. After camp, I got sent down. I was disappointed in myself. I told myself that I had to go back as quickly as possible, and I knew I could do it because I was prepared, I was in shape. I knew that if I worked hard, it would pay off."
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The 6-foot-2, 192-pound winger turned his disappointment into the fuel which fired him up for an excellent start in the Rocket's inaugural campaign at Place Bell, one which saw him collect nine points in six games with the Habs' new AHL affiliate in Laval before earning a call-up on October 22.
"I had the mentality that I wanted to earn my spot, earn that call-up as quickly as possible. And not just to be a call-up player, but to stay as much as possible, so I can show as much as I can on a high level, and not just at the AHL level - which is pretty high, too," outlined Scherbak. "But it's different up in the NHL. There's much more skill, you have to be more in focus. You spend a lot more energy because players are stronger and much better, and you have to be aware all the time. Guys can make a backdoor tap-in anytime if you lose your defenseman. I learned that."
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Scherbak was gaining steam and feeling hopeful in light of the call-up, but in just his second game up - on October 26 vs. Los Angeles - injury struck. He thought he could play through whatever had happened to his right knee and attempted to return, but when he tried to spin off in the corner, he realized the injury was serious.
"I was really upset, really frustrated in the room, but Claude [Julien] came to see me and he said that I played well, and that it's hockey, it happens, it's part of the game. You're never safe," recalled Scherbak, who underwent surgery just days after getting hurt. "I kept in mind that it's part of hockey, and there is nothing I can do about it. I can just think about my future, work hard every day, heal up as quickly as possible and get back on track."
A six-week-long recovery process stood in his way, however, one which limited his mobility for half a month before he could undergo therapy, rehabilitation, and ultimately resume playing.
Scherbak suited up again in Laval in mid-December, affirming that he surprised even himself with how easily he got back into the swing of things. It wasn't until early February, though, that he got the call from Montreal again. He spent seven games mostly on a line with Jonathan Drouin and Alex Galchenyuk, collecting a goal and two assists, and averaging over 14 minutes of ice time per game.
Video: MTL@VGK: Scherbak busts out sweet move for great goal
After another 10-day stint in the minors, Scherbak was brought back up again. He made his presence felt immediately when he scored the insurance goal in a 3-1 win over the Islanders at home, his first game back. He dressed for 17 of the last 19 regular season games, and certainly felt like he was finding his wings in familiar company - Julien often matched him with one or both of former AHL teammates Charles Hudon and Daniel Carr.
"Yeah, I played with Hudy a lot, especially in St. John's. I knew what kind of a player he is, that he has a good shot and I have to find him for good opportunities, so I can give him a good shot," praised Scherbak, who registered three goals and 25 shots in the final month and a half of the season. "I liked playing with him. He's a really skilled player."
In what was a trying season for the team, Scherbak showed some very promising signs with his play when circumstances allowed for it. Of particular note is one late-March scoring drive against the eventual champion Washington Capitals which dazzled the Bell Centre crowd and earned him praise from the Habs faithful.
Video: Scherbak's scoring chance wows the crowd
"For sure, that moment probably gave me a lot of confidence. It's my style of game; that's what I like to do. I never really had a moment like this ever in the NHL, so that was hopefully the first of many. I enjoyed it. It was pretty crazy how fans reacted. I was honestly surprised. It's something you have to be careful with; you don't want to turn it over at the blue line, especially for a young guy. But moments like that are going to happen. For me, as a player, the kind of player I am, I have to take advantage of those moments and show my skill, show more of that, try to beat guys one-on-one," recounted Scherbak. "It gave me a boost for sure. That's something I dream about doing at a high level. I enjoy it as much as the fans do."
This summer, Scherbak committed himself to sticking around Montreal. At the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard where he trains, the Canadiens forward said he planned on working on his skating and was hoping to increase his lower-body strength to up his grind game in the corners and in front of the net.
With no plans to return to Russia this year, Scherbak has been taking advantage of all that Montreal summers have to offer. When he finds himself feeling homesick, a quick jaunt to Old Montreal - which reminds him of home - cures his blues.
"I've been enjoying the last couple of summers I've been here. It's a good city, it's nice to be around. There are a lot of opportunities, a lot of good restaurants, a lot of stuff to do. It's really beautiful, especially in the Old Port in the summer," described Scherbak, who has taken up residence near the Bell Centre. "It's really European, so if I'm ever sad, I just take a walk and it's going to put me in a better mood."
Video: A tour of Nikita Scherbak's house
In the room, Scherbak has thoroughly enjoyed being surrounded by the club's nucleus of veterans, and he hopes that after getting a taste of life in the big leagues last year, he'll get to spend a lot more time with them this time around.
"The older guys care about the young guys. They want us to succeed and to be winners. Especially in this city, there's a lot of pressure; I don't think anybody enjoys losing in this city. Everybody wants to bring a Cup back to town. They're great, they're amazing," he concluded. "I couldn't ask for better; everybody is so nice, they help each other. It's good to see."