A lot of words have been used to describe Nikolay Zherdev over the course of his NHL career, and it's safe to say that the majority of them are not positive ones. See the Webster's definition of "enigmatic," for example, since most writers apparently don't have access to a thesaurus.
Some of the criticism is deserved, of course. Zherdev bolted away to Russia after leading the New York Rangers in scoring during the 2008-09 season, unable to find an NHL gig after Glen Sather walked away from him in player-elected salary arbitration. He had been awarded $3.9 million by the arbitrator that offseason, and despite leading the team with 58 points, something was clearly still amiss.
In four years with Columbus and that one season on Broadway, Zherdev established the reputation that so many North American hockey establishment types fear about Russian players (yes, we know he's Ukrainian; they might as well be the same for this exercise). He didn't care about every game and every shift, he half-assed it in practice and on the backcheck in games and generally just couldn't cut it in the defensive end.
In a nutshell, he was a guy with immense talent but no work ethic to go along with that talent.
That may have been true in 2009 when he left for Europe. After all, there's a reason why the Rangers opted not to sign the guy who led their team in points, and there's a reason why he couldn't find an offer from any NHL team that offseason, and there's a reason why he ultimately wound up in the KHL just six years after being draft fourth overall in the NHL draft.
When he came back to North America in the summer of 2010, however, things were different. A quick glance at the numbers might not prove that fact -- Zherdev only played in 56 games with Peter Laviolette's Philadelphia Flyers in 2010-11, after all. Even worse, he only put up 22 points in those games.
But this wasn't a reflection on Zherdev's play, nor was it a reflection on his attitude or anything of the sort. It's understandable that Zherdev would be forced to earn a spot in Laviolette's lineup after a year in the KHL, but in training camp and the first several games of the regular season, No. 93 did nothing to fall out of the coach's good graces. Sure, he wasn't the model player all the sudden, but how many guys are?
To be honest, his removal from the Flyers' lineup -- which turned into a consistent press box assignment and even a few trips to the waiver wire as the season dragged along -- is still rather inexplicable, especially considering the redundancy of starting two sets of hired fists, Dan Carcillo and Jody Shelley, over him on a routine basis.
Even in his extremely small portion of ice time last season, Zherdev was a contributor on the offensive side of the puck. He only had 22 points, but given the fact that he played mostly on the fourth line and saw only about 12:51 of ice time per game in those 56 games he saw the ice, that's rather impressive. He was 16th amongst Flyers regulars in ice time per game, and he was 13th in the NHL in goals scored per 60 minutes of ice time.
This is impressive stuff, but that's not even getting to the defensive side of the puck. We know he can score and he has the talent, but the biggest knock on Zherdev has always been that he doesn't give two you-know-whats about the other side of the ice. We're not saying that Zherdev suddenly turned into a shutdown line stalwart or anything, but he certainly did his job at both ends of the ice. You can't take that away from him.
Let's look at Balanced Corsi, which Eric T. over at Broad Street Hockey created to compare Corsi numbers of players that play different roles. (The Corsi number, if you're unfamilar, is a plus-minus style rating of goals + shots on goal + missed shots + blocked shots for vs. those against.)
In a nutshell, Corsi numbers show what direction on the ice players push the puck in, but they can be vastly different for players used in offensive roles versus players used in defensive roles. Balanced Corsi takes that into consideration and balances it so Corsi can be compared amongst players that play the same role.
And Zherdev shines, by far the best Flyers player in the department last season according to the metric. In fact, it's been more than just a one season fling for Zherdev. We'll let Eric briefly explain.
And Zherdev isn't just outperforming his peers this year; he's been doing it his whole career. Over the last four years, he's 17th league-wide among players with 200+ games in Balanced Corsi and 18th in Balanced Corsi Rel. What an enigma.
Zherdev isn't a one-dimensional hockey player. He's able to consistently push the puck in the right direction of the ice (as noted by more shots directed toward the other goal than at his own) in comparison to his teammates and his cohorts around the league. He's never going to be a shutdown forward, but he's not a liability out there either, despite what his reputation would tell you.
And now, as we approach the end of July, it looks as though Zherdev could be heading back to Russia. Peter Laviolette sprayed a really giant can of repellent on him (bigger than the one in those shirtless Bill Clement commercials), and it looks as though the rest of the NHL is going to heed the warning.
It's not really fair. In the right situation, Zherdev can play a scoring role and succeed in it with an NHL team. He wasn't a greedy headcase last season and he actually did contribute to his team when he was given the opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like that's going to be realized, and a talented player could leave the NHL, perhaps for good, as a result.