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|15 января 2008
Zherdev learns to play team game // The Vancouver Province
Transformation in young winger is about more than finding finish
Those who struggle with the English language and the North American game are easily considered enigmatic.
Nikolai Zherdev has worn that label for three seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets because his difficulties in interviews were often dwarfed by his difficulties on the ice.
Even though Zherdev has turned those who berated him into believers with 17 goals and a much better two-way game, the epiphany is open to interpretation.
It's easy to assume that the Kiev-born 23-year-old right- winger is having a career season simply because he has found some finish. What Zherdev has found is that the playing for the team is more important than seeking individual success.
Part of Zherdev's improvement is rooted in a clean slate with new GM Scott Howson. Part of it is a commitment to coach Ken Hitchcock's system. Part of it is maturity in the fourth overall pick in the 2003 NHL entry draft.
"He's connected to the group," said Hitchcock. "He's starting to enjoy the elements of hockey that we as North Americans take for granted -- team first, value in being a teammate, enjoying other peoples' company and playing for the crest."
By understanding that good offence is a product of good defence, Zherdev has gone from 10 goals and a horrible minus-19 last season to being on pace for 30 goals and a respectable minus-1 rating.
"If you're not a good teammate, in the heat of battle it always comes out," added Hitchcock. "And it did with Niky. It came out the wrong way and now he's starting to dig in for other people and not just for himself. He's an interesting guy."
Pascal Leclaire said the buy-in by Zherdev is reflected in the way he carries himself compared to last year.
"He's around more and he's involved more," said the Blue Jackets goalie. "On the ice, he's not floating around, just looking for goals. He's involved in every aspect. What he does, not a lot of guys can do. I can't think of anybody who's even similar."
With two goals Friday and the shootout winner Saturday in wins over St. Louis and Nashville, it's hard not to think of the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Zherdev as an emerging power forward. After all, he has combined with Rick Nash to score 40 goals -- more than half the team's 72 tallies this season -- and could help spark the Jackets to the first playoff berth in franchise history. Zherdev also has six goals in 11 career meetings with the Canucks and will line up with Michael Peca and David Vyborny.
"There are some similarities with [Oilers winger] Ales Hemsky," said Peca. "A very dangerous open-ice player, but Zherdev is even better one-on-one. There's just such skill there."
And whether you want to define that skill as playmaker or scorer, it's clear that Zherdev can do both when called upon.
"He's kind of a reluctant scorer and it almost embarrasses him at times," said Hitchcock. " He fools around in shootouts and then when you put five bucks on the line, he goes 4-for-5.
"He's a gifted guy, but he doesn't think like a scorer. He thinks like a playmaker and that's the misnomer that people have about him. They think because he got 27 goals one year (2005-06) that he's a scorer. He can score, but he thinks like a playmaker.
"He's always moving away from the action and always trying to find the perfect play."
With Fredrik Modin out since Nov. 1 with back fractures and Vyborny missing 10 games because of back and groin injuries, the top six forwards have combined for just three goals. That only speaks to Zherdev's value.
"I would say he'll be -- within a year, if he keeps going -- an elite
guy and top-25 forward in the league, for sure," said Hitchcock.