COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The Blue Jackets say Nikolai Zherdev is in better condition and has a better mental approach than he's ever had. To take his makeover to another level, he's going to try a new position.
The 23-year-old Russian, a favourite whipping boy of former general manager Doug MacLean, will get a shot at centring a line between Rick Nash and David Vyborny when the Blue Jackets begin pre-season practice on Friday.
"We're going to experiment with a line for the first week to 10 days of training camp that no one's seen before," Ken Hitchcock said Thursday, on the eve of his first full season as the Blue Jackets coach. "It's not going to be cast in stone, but we've talked to the three players involved and we want to see how this looks on the ice."
This is stunning news in hockey circles. MacLean continually denigrated Zherdev, intimating that the young, fast offensive star was selfish, one-dimensional and not a good teammate.
Now Hitchcock, along with Scott Howson, who took over as GM when MacLean was fired after last season, are putting Zherdev in the heart of the lineup.
Where MacLean took a combative stance with Zherdev during a contract negotiation a year ago and throughout last season, Howson has tried to include the enigmatic player. He travelled this summer to Ottawa, where Zherdev was living in the off-season, and met with him.
Howson told Zherdev what he expected of him and what kind of shape the player needed to be in. Then Howson dropped a bomb on Zherdev.
"We suggested it and he about fell off the back of his chair," Hitchcock said with a grin.
Howson said it was evident that Zherdev didn't think he could play centre, which involves feeding teammates, sacrificing your body for others to score and not making turnovers.
"Part of his reluctance initially when I brought it up to him, he thought, 'Oh, I'm going to play centre for the whole year,"' Howson said. "He kind of misunderstood what I was saying, which was, 'Let's give it a try.' Once it was presented in that light, that we're going to try it and see how it goes and it's not (set) in stone, he was very receptive. I think now he's very excited about it."
A message seeking comment from Zherdev was left with the club on Thursday.
Zherdev was the fourth pick overall in the 2003 NHL draft. He had to sneak out of Moscow late at night to join the Blue Jackets later that year, scoring a goal in his first game with his new team. A flashy skater with breakneck moves, he had 40 goals and 48 assists in his first two full years with the club.
After signing a $7.5-million, three-year contract that kept him out of much of last year's training camp, he had just 10 goals and 22 assists in 71 games. Criticized by MacLean for not learning English and not playing defence, he frequently sulked. By the end of the year, he was a shell of the once-promising player from just a year or two before.
Howson said from what he could tell, Zherdev was in top condition and had met all the responsibilities he had been assigned this summer. He said Zherdev was working out two or three times a day with a trainer, was working on his skating and was doing aerobic work.
Hitchcock took over a team with one of the worst records in hockey and went 28-29-5 the rest of last season. He said he had dinner with Zherdev recently and explained why he wanted him to try the new position.
"My focus is to be successful offensively, your best players have to have the puck more," Hitchcock said. "This is an opportunity for him to have the puck more. Regardless of who plays centre ice, whether it's Vyborny or him or whatever, or if we decide to go with (Sergei) Fedorov or (Michael) Peca there, we want people to play together that are creative."
The Blue Jackets play their first exhibition game at home on Sunday night against Nashville. Their season opener is Oct. 5 at Nationwide Arena against the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks.