It is ironic that Nikolai Zherdev left for the KHL last season after having some top-notch years under his belt in the NHL (Three 50+ point seasons to be exact). It is ironic Nikolai Zherdev after only one year of KHL play, he decided he wanted to come back to the league that shunned him away. It is ironic that Nikolai Zherdev has come back to North America with a new attitude that couldn’t even be altered by the likes of Sergei Fedorov in his time with the Jackets. It is even more ironic that the team willing to take the gamble to acquire him didn’t have a great deal of cap room and has been known not to have an affinity for Eastern Europeans throughout their team’s history.
Questions surrounding Nikolai Zherdev’s work ethic and ability to adhere to the teams style of play have always been brought up ever since he was drafted 4th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2004. Zherdev was never the guy to play by anyone’s rules. The world was his oyster and it revolved around him 24/7/365. His production, or, in 2006-07, the lack thereof, ranked higher on his pedestal than the benefit and progression of his team as a whole. So why, on Earth, would a player with his talent, skillset, vision, as well as his lack of drive, want to come back to a league that had put red flags around his name since he boarded his plane for a one-way ticket back to the KHL?
The letters K-H-L might have the greatest impact on Zherdev’s decision to come back to the States. If we can all be realistic for a second, it is a known fact that the KHL does not hold a candle to the NHL in terms of which is the better league. While various billionaires fund the KHL, the dreams of kids around the world are not to grow up to be a successful KHL player, but rather build a career, albeit a minor one, in the NHL. Not once have I ever heard a kid say, “When I grow up, I will be a hockey player and play in the greatest league in the world…the KHL.”
Sure, the money flows to the top players in the league, and I am sure Zherdev was getting a decent cut of that dough, however, Zherdev’s overall talents flourished in the NHL previously, so why stick around in a 2nd-tier league, when the “Big Show” was the place to be? Zherdev knew he could make the NHL, pretty easily given his talents, but that didn’t mean he would get the approval of the league or the fans for his return trip.
Zherdev had to become a changed man who could, not only play the game to the best of his abilities, but also take responsibility for his actions. He needed to show a knack to become an adaptive player to his teammates and coaches. And honestly, what better a team to do that with then the reigning Eastern Conference Champions, Philadelphia Flyers. *cough*Sarcasm doesn’t go over well on paper*cough*
Why is there a sense that Zherdev wouldn’t be a good fit with the Flyers? Well lets take, for example, the amount of Russians/Soviet players that the Flyers have had, developed, and actually made an impact to the organization over their, almost, 45 year career. I think I could basically count them on my hands and toes. Let us also take into consideration the previous history that the Flyers have had with “prima donna” like players. Eric Lindros?…Enough said.
The Flyers offseason woes were placed in the hands of GM Paul Holmgren. Holmgren went out of his way to sign Michael Leighton, a goalie who showed his vulnerability in the Stanley Cup Finals, to a 2-year deal. Then Homer pulled of a trade that sent a second rounder for a 4-million dollar defenseman in Andrej Meszaros, further diminishing our amount of cap space. And completely baffling the fan base by signing yet another enforcer, Jody Shelley to a 1.1 million dollar deal. Putting the Flyers into a cap hell, Holmgren did the unthinkable shipping the lifetime Flyer, Simon Gagne for an overpaid 7th defenseman and a 4th round pick. My, how well Paul Holmgren can stretch the value of a dollar.
With the departure of a prior 40-goal scorer, Zherdev seemed to be the most logical fit, having already notched three 20+-goal campaigns in his, short-lived, NHL career. And by the looks of things this preseason, it’s as if Zherdev has been playing with this Flyers team his entire career. In 7 games this preseason, Zherdev has already racked up 6 goals and 1 assist. Not too shabby for a player who hasn’t played on the smaller ice surface in a year.
But the real test will be shown tonight, when the Flyers kick off their season in familiar enemy territory as they take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in their newly renovated Consol Energy Center. Zherdev has found instant chemistry with the most promising player in the Flyers organization to date, Claude Giroux. Zherdev’s and Giroux’s styles are a perfect for each other, given that Zherdev is a natural goal scorer and Giroux is a playmaking wizard. Anchored by James van Riemsdyk on the wing, the line has shown that it can be a powerhouse to put the puck in the net.
So was Zherdev’s decision to come back to the NHL a good idea?
We are about to find out.