NEW YORK – The early returns are in. On this trade, it’s the Rangers by a landslide.
Nikolai Zherdev has been so dominate for the Blueshirts early on this season; it’s hard to believe Glen Sather stole him for middle of the road defensemen Christian Backman and Fedor Tyutin.
And yet again, No. 13 was starring on the Garden ice, chipping in a goal and an assist in the Rangers 3-2 over the Atlanta Thrashers.
His skating is an art form and his speed allows the Russian sniper to fly down ice to make a play. Against the Thrashers, that speed was on display, as the 23 year-old scored on the fly in the third and then took a trip around the net to outlet over to Dan Girardi for the game winning, just a few minutes later. Even more impressively, he also broke up a shorthanded breakaway earlier on in the match.
That’s why star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said, “He is certainly one of the most talented players I’ve seen.”
The skills were always there for Zherdev, as evidenced by the Blue Jackets picking him fourth overall in the 2003 draft. But the talent never equated to the numbers. In four NHL seasons, the right wing scored 26 goals with 105 assists. He had a good year in his first full season [27 goals and 27 assists in 2005-06], but then fell to just 10 goals and 22 assists the next year.
Coach Tom Renney said when Ken Hitchcock took over the Jackets, Zherdev changed to a north south player, which caused him to put up his best season last year with 26 goals and 35 assists.
Yet, so much more was expected, though. Much like Alexi Kovalev in the mid-90s, the results never lived up the promise.
And because of that, it made the Russian expendable for Columbus, and he shipped him to the Rangers along with Dan Fritsche for the two defenseman back on Jul. 2.
The Rangers saw a player who just needed some fine tuning and also some acceptance among his teammates. With a very unselfish locker room, Zherdev immediately fit in and Renney tried to have him play to his strengths.
“I just am being Tom,” Renney said modestly. “One of the reasons we got him is because we thought that style of coaching would work with him. We really support our players and give them a lot of opportunity to get success.”
It allowed for a blistering start of five goals and seven assists with a NHL leading plus-11. With Chris Drury, Scott Gomez and Markus Naslund struggling, Zherdev has been the Rangers best forward, so far in this campaign.
“He’s doing what he can do, obviously, but he is playing every game with an edge in his game,” Fritsche said. “You can tell he is playing with a passion and playing to win. He is proving a lot of people wrong so far.”
Of course this could be a short lived tenure. Zherdev can be a restricted free agent after this season. The Rangers have made sure to make him feel right at home, so the winger considers staying in New York, rather than bolting for Russia next year.
Yet, that’s something for the future, because the Blueshirts are just enjoying Zherdev and what he is bringing to the table so far. But as good as he has been; there is certainly room to improve.
“He played hard and the effort is definitely there,” Renney said. “There are some things we have to improve as a team and Niki is certainly symbolic of that. Maybe he’s trying to do many things but at the same time, he works hard and he understands what we’re looking for.”