Rangers Flashback: The Curious Case of Nikolai Zherdev

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As a Rangers fan, I’ve seen tons of players come and go (the genesis of the Lesser Known Rangers piece I write for this blog) and many players catch my eye. Generally, the ones who stick out tend to stay in my memory, like Ryan McDonagh or Mats Zuccarello. Those players were members of the Blueshirts for a significant amount of time.

Then there are others who don’t last, the ones we tend to forget. That being said, there’s one player who stands out, to me at least, for being the team’s best scorer at one point, who was then subsequently gone from the roster almost a year after he was brought in. His name is Nikolai Zherdev.

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Where to begin?

Before coming to the Rangers, Zherdev was drafted fourth overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Blessed with blazing speed and tremendous hands, Zherdev had all the makings of a superstar waiting to happen. I mean, when I say the guy had some serious skill, he had some serious skill.

Half way through the 2003 season of the now defunct Russian Superleague, the predecessor to the KHL, Zherdev left and skated in 57 games in Columbus, scoring 13 goals and 21 assists. After the 2004 lockout, Zherdev played in 73 games for Columbus and scored 54 points. The 2006-2007 campaign did not go as planned for Zherdev, only scoring ten goals in 72 games and he finished with a plus/minus rating of -19.

In 2007, after tense contract talks, both sides agreed on a three-year deal and it paid off for Columbus almost instantaneously. That season saw Zherdev score 61 points in 82 games, but the Blue Jackets would miss the playoffs.

Not too long after, on July 2, 2008, Zherdev was traded along with Dan Fritsche to New York for Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman. In his first season with the Rangers, Zherdev tied for the team lead in points with Scott Gomez, scoring 58 points. Zherdev had a few nice moments with the Rangers, including a few shootout goals, an odd angle goal against Minnesota, and a late game tying goal against Pittsburgh, in which the Rangers won in the shootout shortly after.

Pretty good, huh?

As a restricted free agent, Zherdev was tendered a qualifying offer of $3.25 million by the Rangers before the start of the 2009 free agency period so the Rangers could retain his rights as the two sides negotiate. Afterwards, Zherdev was awarded $3.9 million in arbitration, however, the Rangers chose to let him go.

The Rangers have allowed forward Nikolai Zherdev to become an unrestricted free agent after declining to accept the $3.9 million salary awarded to him by an arbitrator, ending his one-year run with the team.

Zherdev, a talented but streaky 24-year-old forward and a former first round draft pick, was acquired by the Rangers in a trade with Columbus last summer and tied for the team lead in scoring last season. But the Rangers’ offense sputtered and Zherdev never quite lived up to the team’s expectations.

After the season, the Rangers offered Zherdev $3.25 million as a restricted free agent but Zherdev filed for arbitration. The Rangers had the option to accept it or let him walk away. Zherdev’s agent, Rolland Hedges, has said he will field offers from other N.H.L. teams but playing in Russia’s Continental Hockey League, or K.H.L., is a possibility as well.

Lynn Zinser/ New York Times

After a brief stint with the Flyers, Zherdev bolted to the KHL and is now essentially out of hockey. Why though? Why was it that such a talented player couldn’t stick in a fast paced, skill league that is the new NHL?

For a player with such high-end skill and talent, one of the main indictments against the Russian was his attitude, which led to inconsistencies in his game. During his time in both Columbus and New York, management and coaching staffs of both teams had incidents where his effort and attitude was put up to question. One instance was after a down season in Columbus, then Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock and then GM Scott Howson had a meeting with him to discuss this issue.

Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson carried out his long-anticipated peacekeeping mission with enigmatic right winger Nikolai Zherdev yesterday.

Howson, Zherdev and Zherdev’s two agents, Rollie Hedges and Sasha Tyjnych, had lunch at the ritzy Ottawa Golf & Hunt Club, the “clean-the-slate” meeting Howson began planning soon after he took over as GM in June.

“We know each other better now, both where we stand and what the expectations are of Nikolai. It’s a fresh start, and that’s good.”

Zherdev has been the source of much frustration for the Blue Jackets. His lack of motivation and failure to assimilate with the rest of the club have outweighed his considerable talent. He has been inconsistent in three NHL seasons.

Last season, he dipped to 10 goals, from 27 in 2005-06, and clashed with Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock and other members of the coaching staff.

Howson sought to rectify the situation, perhaps heading off a messy divorce before it reached a point of no return.

Aaron Portzline/The Columbus Dispatch

This lack of effort and inconsistent play was on full display during his time as a Ranger. Although he possessed the talent of a first liner, Zherdev vanished for long stretches of the season. There were some points it seemed like he wasn’t even on the ice. This was noticed by Rangers management and by newly installed coach John Tortorella. Zherdev did not make a dent during the Rangers’ first round exit against Washington. All of this, is what ultimately led New York to cut ties with him, as they felt the money awarded to him in arbitration could be better used elsewhere (Marian Gaborik anyone?)

Zherdev, 24, rejected the Rangers’ $3.25 million qualifying offer in June and was seeking a deal in the neighborhood of $4.5 million. The Rangers refused to up their offer by a single penny. “It’s not a surprise,” Zherdev’s agent, Rolland Hedges, said by telephone from Ottawa Tuesday. “In all fairness, we asked the Rangers after the qualifying offer if they were prepared to negotiate. And they said no. Glen (Sather) stayed true to his word. “With the additions we’ve been able to make this summer, we feel we’ve been able to add scoring and offense from the wing position,” Sather said in a statement. “We feel it is in our best interest to walk away and continue to explore all available options to improve our roster.”

Zherdev scored 23 goals and 58 points in his lone season in a Blueshirt, during which he was known to disappear at times – witness his zero-point performance in the playoffs – and never struck a connection with new coach John Tortorella. Hedges repeated Tuesday that “it is (Zherdev’s) No. 1 priority to play in the NHL,” but a move to Russia‘s KHL is a distinct possibility.  Michael Obernauer/ New York Daily News

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As a younger fan at the time, I didn’t like the move. Sure, I knew the guy was a flake, but with the team firing Tom Renney and in a transition period, I thought it’d be good to keep a guy who could score on the team. Obviously, the Rangers knew more than I did and went their own way. All in all, this goes to show you that even if you possess all of the talent in the world, if you do not put your all into playing the game at a professional level and coast through, you won’t last long.

Nikolai Zherdev was a good hockey player, but at the end of the day, he failed to put in the effort that was required of him to stick around. It’s a bummer to see someone with such an elite skill set flame out into oblivion. If only he had put a little more into his game, maybe the Rangers keep him and he becomes what this team has lacked for some time.

Then again, we can play “What If” the whole day if we want when it comes to the Rangers, doesn’t change a thing. All we have is a memory of his short time here. Thank goodness for YouTube, right?