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This kid's got it all

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – It didn’t take the Everett Silvertips long to realize just how special Nikita Scherbak really is.

Veteran bench boss Kevin Constantine can’t say enough good things about the 19-year-old phenom, who is in the midst of closing out another stellar WHL campaign. Scherbak boasts 27 goals and a team-leading 79 points in 63 games this season, in addition to pacing the Silvertips with a plus-28 differential. The CHL sophomore’s remarkable skating ability and noteworthy creativity certainly caught Constantine’s eye right away, but the Minnesota native believes that it’s not the only aspect of his star forward that speaks volumes about his potential for success at the pro level.

Photo Credit: Chris Mast

“I would describe Nikita as a really, really good human spirit. That goes a little bit beyond just being a coachable player. You just sense that youthfulness and that enthusiasm in him,” offered Constantine, whose squad acquired Scherbak in a blockbuster trade with the Saskatoon Blades last September. “He’s fun to be around. He’s got an air about him, an energy about him, a caring about him. He might still make some youthful mistakes, but he’s way ahead of where I was at his age. He’s just got a nice humanity to him. When you’ve got that, you know that your coach is there to help you be a better player. So, in Nikita’s case, I’d go one step further than coachable. He’s just a good human being.”

That’s high praise for a teenager, who is just in his second year in North America after beginning his Junior career with Kapitan Stupino in the Russian Junior Hockey League in 2012. It’s likely what also impressed the Habs’ brass as well, before making Scherbak the 26th overall selection at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft in Philadelphia last June.

“With experience and time, there’s great room for growth in a person like that. They care enough to listen. They care about their game, and they’re probably going to get better over the course of time,” explained Constantine, whose NHL head coaching experience included stints with the San Jose Sharks, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New Jersey Devils. “What you’re going to see two or three or four years down the road is probably even better than what you’re seeing now. That’s what’s exciting about where I think Nikita can go as a player.”

Based on what Scherbak has shown time and again since leaving Moscow, you’d be hard-pressed to argue with that assessment. The talented young gun is steadily taking ownership of his game, and demonstrating a level of maturity reminiscent of players with far more extensive hockey resumes than him.

Photo Credit: Chris Mast

“He’s definitely one of the top offensive players in the League. But, what I think has also happened is that he’s probably developed so many other parts of his game that he makes contributions now in a way over and above just providing a team with offensive play. He’s really grown as a player to understand all of the game, how you have to play in your own end of the ice, how you have to play within the structure of the team,” mentioned Constantine, who believes Scherbak’s play has been a key ingredient in the Silvertips’ current standing atop the U.S. Division in the WHL’s Western Conference. “His main contribution has been his offense and the fact that we’re a more dynamic offensive team. That’s been his gift to us. His second contribution is being willing to learn the game, understand it, play a team game and care for team results. He’s made some nice progress in those areas.”

Scherbak will be the first one to admit that his time under Constantine’s tutelage in Washington State has certainly changed him for the better, particularly when it comes to mastering the intricacies of playing that all-important two-way game that coaches preach and appreciate.

“Last year in Saskatoon, I was playing more like a one-way forward. My focus was on offense. We didn’t focus too much on defense. This year, things are different. I’m trying to take my game to the next level because if you don’t play defense in the NHL and you don’t play well without the puck, you’re not going to play there,” shared Scherbak, who will make his WHL playoff debut this season after the Blades failed to qualify for postseason play last year. “I think that’s where I’ve improved the most, when it comes to my defensive game. I’m better in terms of my positioning. I’m competing for the puck when I don’t have it. After all, you can’t go on offense all the time. It’s much better when you feel like you’re a two-way player.”

And, that’s exactly what Scherbak would like to show his future employers in Montreal come July at Development Camp, and on into Rookie Camp in August.

“You can’t believe how excited I am to come back to Montreal. I’m so excited,” offered Scherbak, whose terrific showing in La Belle Province last summer earned him a spot at main camp and some NHL exhibition game play before being returned to the WHL. “It’s just a chance to show how much I’ve improved. I will just be trying to be myself and play my game. I think it will be good for Montreal staff members to see the new things that I can do and that I’ve got a bit of a different game now. I’ll be more patient this time around. I know more and I’ll be more comfortable. It was motivating to come back and improve my game. I’m going to come back and show what I can do to try to make the team.”

Interestingly enough, Constantine wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Scherbak does manage to earn a roster spot in Montreal as early as next season. He believes the gifted prospect is just that good.

“You’ve got to have some type of skill that can enable you to compete at that level. I think he is ready for the NHL in terms of the way he shoots the puck, the way he passes the puck and the way he sees the ice. Then, you’ve got to make sure that you’re physically ready, that you’re strong and conditioned and in shape to handle the bigger bodies of the NHL. That’s something he’s working on and grinding away at, too. He’s made some great strides there,” concluded Constantine. “I’ve seen a lot of young guys take forever to figure out that there’s more to the game than just getting points and scoring goals. That’s what Nikita loves to do. But, you always want that player who is going to understand all of the game, be trustworthy to coaches and be useful in a variety of situations. I think his personality will allow him to do that. He’s a good kid at heart. That’s what I think will allow that progress to continue.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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