|Nikolai Zherdev has 12 goals and 12 assists this season and is on track to challenge his career-high 27-goal season.
You could say it was like Christmas in July last summer.
Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson agreed to meet with Nikolai Zherdev and his two agents at a neutral site in Ottawa. When the parties finally met, the often enigmatic Russian winger told Howson that he wanted to stay in Columbus and, more importantly, he wanted to make a commitment to the Blue Jackets.
Skeptics figured it was just another case of Russian Roulette -- you know, click ... click ... nothing -- and based on previous history something would be lost in the translation.
But here we are in late December and the highly-skilled 22-year-old native of Kiev, has been dazzling, with his patented spin moves, toe drags and dangling like few others in the world. Actually, nothing was lost in the translation with Zherdev’s scintillating hockey skills from the moment the team selected him fourth overall at the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
What often was missing was the focus and the impact.
"When Z is on, he’s scary-good," Jackets star winger Rick Nash said earlier this season. "He’s really trying – trying to be a good teammate, trying to be a part of everything we do. And that is exciting.
"We’ve all known he can dominate a game when he wants to."
Dominating? When you consider he slumped from 27 goals in 2005-06 to just 10 last season, well, 12 goals and 12 assists in his first 33 games this season has put him on pace to challenge that career-high 27-goal total.
And all it took was a little pow-wow with the new boss.
Funny, but former GM Doug MacLean often talked about communication, or lack thereof, with regard to Zherdev. He said all the right things, about how everyone realizes the culture shock all players go through in coming to North America from European or Communist-bloc countries for the first time, feeling all alone, not knowing or understanding the language. MacLean tried to get through to the youngster through fellow Russians Sergei Fedorov or Alexander Svitov. He even brought in Sergei Kharin, a former Winnipeg Jets player who had been selling cars, thinking that perhaps a simpler, outside-of-sports communication source might get the message across to Zherdev.
"We thought he was the most skilled player in that draft, the best player in that draft," MacLean said late in the 2005-06 season. "I don’t know how many times I sat down with him and told him, heart-to-heart, that we were prepared to wait for him to learn the language the way we waited for Sergei Fedorov when I was with the Red Wings. But ..."
It began to appear midway through last season that the Blue Jackets’ only alternative might be to trade Zherdev. But Howson wanted to try to offer a clean-slate approach to the talented kid.
"I wanted him to get a feel for me. I wanted him to know my vision in Columbus," Howson said earlier this season. "We talked about the issues in the past. But really I wanted to let him know what the expectations (coach) Ken Hitchcock and I had for him this season.
"When we shook hands at the end of the meeting, he smiled and said, ‘I’m looking forward ... not looking back.’ I liked that."
Zherdev’s trust always has been in his individual skills. The team concept of playing disciplined and accountable on defense was lost in the translation – until now, according to Hitchcock.
"He’s like a great individual artist ... and we’ve got to get him to conform a little more to the team concept," Hitchcock said. "When he’s skating and competing he’s no different than any other skilled player from Canada, the United States, Russia, anywhere, because good things happen.
"But that compete level is what we didn’t always see last season."
And it becomes an even bigger issue when a young player has a problem making a connection with his teammates – on and off the ice.
When Howson met with Zherdev in the summer, his agents wanted to show the new GM the conditioning improvements the player had made to show his commitment to Columbus.
On the other hand, Howson and the Blue Jackets, like any other team, didn’t want to trade away all the time and dollars they’ve spent on a commitment to develop Zherdev. When a team spends a high draft pick on a foreign player, there’s nothing foreign about the homework that must be done – by the player and the team. Scouting the skills is not enough.
All draft choices and prospects face a growing and learning experience before they are ready for the NHL. Only time and development will tell you the full story.
"When you are talking about developing a prospect, it doesn’t stop at European players and the culture shock they are about to face," St. Louis Blues GM Larry Pleau said. "You’ve got to remember that these are all kids. Most of them have never had a car, never had a bank account, never had to go into a grocery store to shop for himself."
Hockey 101 is the same for all youngsters. When you’re about to spend lots of money on a prospect, it begins with finding the right team for the player, the right coach, the right family to place him with. And on and on.
"This goes for any kid you draft, not just a high first-round pick who has tremendous skills like Zherdev," Pleau added. "There are no guarantees in this business. These kids are looking for direction. But until these kids get comfortable away from home and the rink, you can’t expect them to be comfortable on the ice.
"Some do it quickly. Some take time. Some never do. And ..."
Hitchcock stopped that train of thought right there, because he sees the bright light at the end of this communication tunnel, with the breathtaking moves and results he’s getting more consistently from Zherdev.
Now we’re seeing more red lights and more back of the net – and not hearing nyet, nyet, nyet!
Around the Central Division – Salary-cap restrictions have kept the number of trades to less than a handful this season, but the two that went down just before the Christmas trade embargo (Dec. 19-27) were made by Central Division teams, St. Louis and Chicago. The Blues got lucky that the Anaheim Ducks needed to clear cap room in order to activate All-Star defenseman Scott Niedermayer. GM Brian Burke was unwilling to deal any of the depth he has obtained on his defense, instead sending center Andy McDonald to the Blues for veteran center Doug Weight. McDonald, who had 34 goals and 51 assists in 2005-06 and 27 goals and 51 assists last season, plus a team-high 10 goals in the playoffs in helping the Ducks win a Stanley Cup, had struggled this season with just four goals and 12 assists in 33 games without his usual linemates Teemu Selanne (retired) and Chris Kunitz (often on another line). But McDonald, at 30 and 6-1/2 years younger than Weight, quickly showed the speed the Blues wanted in his first game in St. Louis, with a goal and an assist Dec. 16 against Calgary. Four nights later, McDonald had another two-point game, with two assists in a rousing 3-2 comeback victory against the Detroit Red Wings. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks sent defenseman Jim Vandermeer back to Philadelphia for tough winger Ben Eager, who had six goals and 233 penalty minutes for the Flyers in 63 games last season. Chicago GM Dale Tallon was looking to give coach Denis Savard more energy, and Eager certainly did that in his first game while adding an assist on Dustin Byfuglien’s goal in a 5-2 triumph against Nashville on Dec. 19. The trade, plus the recall of minor-league center Petri Kontiola to play on the team’s No. 1 line with Robert Lang and Martin Havlat until Jason Williams is healthy, allowed Savard to move Byfuglien from wing back to defense, where he’s been an impact player for more than a month now. The deal also is intended to give Savard a more balanced four lines. Ironically, the Hawks got at least one goal from each line in their triumph against the Predators. ... Want to know just how good this Detroit Red Wings team is? A 6-2 win against Los Angeles on Dec. 19 ran the Wings’ record at home to a League-best 16-2-1, and the team’s 25-6-3 overall mark equaled a team record for the fewest games (34) needed to post 25 wins – previously set in 1995-96, when Detroit set a club record with 62 wins. ... While other teams continue to search for more talent, Detroit GM Ken Holland and assistant GM Jim Nill seem to uncover more each year. Valterri Filppula, picked 95th overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, is the latest of those very skilled forwards. He scored his ninth goal this season (he had 10 in 73 games last season) against the Blues on Dec. 20. Included in that output is two penalty-shot scores, which equaled a club mark set in 1992 when Steve Yzerman accomplished the feat. Since then, the only penalty-shot goal by Detroit prior to Filppula’s pair was scored by Igor Larionov in 1995. ... More focus on the new, young leadership developing in Detroit: With leaders Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby out for a recent nine-game stretch with knee and back injuries, respectively, the Wings went 8-0-1. ... Defenseman Niklas Kronvall’s four assists in the victory against Los Angeles represented a career-high for assists and points in a single game for the fourth-year NHLer. ... St. Louis’ 3-2 victory against Detroit on Dec. 20 was the Blues’ second win in three tries against the Red Wings this season – and improved their record to 5-2 against Detroit since Andy Murray became Blues coach last December. ... To show you how much better the Central Division has gotten, the loss to St. Louis dropped the Wings’ record to 5-6-1 in the division. ... The Blues went into the Detroit game struggling defensively, having been clipped for 20 goals – including seven on the power play – during their last four games. After a few practices, in which Murray went back to the basics with regard to defensive responsibilities, the team blanked the Red Wings on all five power-play opportunities while scoring twice themselves. For the record, the Blues now have 13 of their 17 wins and are 13-3-0 when they allow two goals or less. ... After netting only one goal in his first 22 games, Lee Stempniak’s game-winner against Detroit gave him five goals in his last nine games. ... With three assists in Chicago’s win against Nashville Dec. 19, Martin Havlat went into the weekend with 11 points in the 10 games he’s played since returning to the lineup from a shoulder injury. ... Patrick Sharp combined with Robert Lang to score two goals apiece in that game – one of Sharp’s two goals against the Preds was his League-leading sixth shorthanded tally, giving Chicago an NHL-leading 11 man-down scores. ... How do teams measure their depth? One way is the success they have in back-to-back games. Chicago has 20 such games this season. Last season they went 5-9-3 in the first game of back-to-back contests and 6-10-1 in the second. This season, they are 4-2-1 in the first games and 2-4-1 in the second games. ... Jason Chimera is a high-energy player with size and speed -- and he’s the one player on the Blue Jackets who had yet to get a chance on Columbus’ No. 1 line with Rick Nash this season. This weekend he was scheduled to get that opportunity, playing on a line with Nash and Sergei Fedorov, as the Jackets struggled of late – 6-10-4 after an 8-3-2 start this season. Chimera had 15 goals last season, but just five this season before the promotion. ... Pascal Leclaire’s six shutouts early this season got him a lot of publicity, but the Jackets’ best goaltender of late has been Fredrik Norrena, who has won three of his last four starts. Norrena, who was the team’s first goalie to post a season-long winning record last season (24-23-3) has been a victim of lack of support for most of this season. In his nine losses, Columbus has scored just 13 times. ... If you don’t think a 5-foot-9, 175-pound ball of energy like Scott Nichol isn’t important to the Nashville Predators, just look at its 1-4 record while he was serving a five-game suspension for crosschecking Montreal’s Patrice Brisebois on Dec. 1. It was the second time in two seasons Nichol has been suspended while a member of the Predators and the fifth time in his eight-year NHL career. He told reporters he doesn’t plan to seek anger management help and that no changes will be forthcoming in his nasty, aggressive, hard-hitting style of play. But you can bet GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz have told Nichol to think twice when he’s about to step over the edge. ... Jason Arnott finally ended his nine-game slump without a goal and J.P. Dumont also ended an eight-game goal slump the same night, Dec. 18 at Minnesota. But the fact of the matter is the 14 goals the Predators scored in an eight-game stretch shows the lack of goals is not just a matter of two players being in a slump. A team meeting followed a 5-2 loss in Chicago Dec. 19, presumably to discuss the offensively impaired Nashville attack.
The week ahead – The Predators and Blue Jackets headline the Central Division marquee next week, matching up in Columbus Dec. 23 and in Nashville four days later. Martin Erat had two goals and two assists in a 4-1 Preds victory against Chicago Nov. 12, just two days after he scored the only goal in a shootout for a 4-3 decision against the Hawks. ... The Blues and Red Wings meet for the fourth time this season – and for the second time in seven days – in St. Louis on Dec. 26. The Blues have won both games in St. Louis and lost in Detroit, 3-0. An interesting sidelight to those two wins in St. Louis was that Keith Tkachuk netted key goals in each game – in the 16 games between Nov. 13 and Dec. 20, Tkachuk had zero goals. ... In individual meetings of note involving division players, Brad Boyes plays his first game back in Boston on Dec. 22. It will be his first game against his old team since the Bruins traded him to the Blues last Feb. 27. ... On the same day, Martin Havlat returns to Ottawa for the first time since he was dealt to the Blackhawks in July 2006. Havlat had one assist in Chicago’s 4-3 overtime win against the Senators last March 4. ... Keith Tkachuk, who played 18 games last season with Atlanta after being traded there by the Blues last Feb. 25 before re-signing in St. Louis in late June, will face his former team Dec. 23. Tkachuk had seven goals and eight assists in those 18 games for the Thrashers last season.