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|2 марта 2008 года.
Nikolai Zherdev has become a better teammate and player // The Columbus Dispatch
By Tom Reed and Aaron Portzline
Nikolai Zherdev has lots of reasons to smile after finding a happy medium on and off the ice this season with the Blue Jackets.
Almost nothing Nikolai Zherdev does with the puck surprises his Blue Jackets teammates.
He can stick-handle it through defenders. He can rush it from goal line to goal line. He can fire it with deceptive velocity, the backswing of his wrist shot as compact as the stroke of a 3-foot putt.
But early in the season, aboard the team plane headed out west, Zherdev made a move that left some teammates slack-jawed. The 23-year-old Ukrainian asked if he could sit in on a game of cards.
"I couldn't believe it at first," winger Jason Chimera said. "It's the kind of stuff Nik never did in the past. He wasn't a very good poker player, but by making the effort he was showing he wanted to be one of the boys."
It's what a player does without the puck that sometimes matters most to teammates. That's the lesson Zherdev is learning in his fourth NHL season.
Whether it's blocking shots in the defensive end or pulling the occasional prank in the locker room, the reticent right winger has made an effort to step outside his comfort zone.
"We were on (a hotel) elevator and I felt someone behind me reaching into my bag and I turned around and it was Z," teammate Rick Nash said. "He has come a long way, and I think it's a sign he's becoming happier in his environment."
To be clear, Zherdev says what makes him most happy is his increased ice time and evolving all-around game. He is never going to be the player organizing bowling nights or team barbeques.
The remaking of Zherdev's image, however, has been one of the biggest behind-the-scenes stories of the season. It's one that Zherdev is not ready to see end despite his longing for home and his new girlfriend living in Ukraine.
"It's pretty hard, but in a couple of months it'll be OK," Zherdev said through a translator. "First playoffs, then go to Kiev."
Zherdev made the comment before the trade deadline and the dispatching of Sergei Fedorov and captain Adam Foote. The Blue Jackets are three points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference heading into today's game at Edmonton. Still, the sentiment is revealing for a player approaching career highs in goals, assists and team-building gestures.
None of it is coincidence. His makeover is the result of an enigmatic athlete embracing change, a rookie general manager extending a proposition and an old-school coach granting latitude to a player his teammates once labeled a "diva."
"I was not able to feel my game on the ice (last season)," Zherdev said.
"The coach didn't have enough trust in me. This year, I feel like the coach
trusts me, like he wants to put me on the ice. That's made it a lot better."
General manager Scott Howson never met Zherdev until they sat across a table from each other last August in Ottawa.
The new GM and the mercurial winger ignored the humidity and worked through the language barrier during a 90-minute lunch. Zherdev addressed Howson in English but allowed his agents, Rollie Hedges and Sasha Tyjnych, to translate important points.
"Forget everything and just start better," Zherdev said of the meeting's theme. "It was like a whole new beginning. I was really pleased to have (Howson) come meet me there."
Howson was aware of Zherdev's background, his acrimonious contract negotiations and disastrous 2006-07 season. He knew of the clashes with the coaching staff and former GM and president Doug MacLean. He had heard stories of the spotty work ethic, poor conditioning level and tepid relations with teammates.
It's as if Zherdev had spent the season in a self-imposed exile and the Jackets were the ones paying for the void.
His production dropped from 27 goals to 10 and his trade value, judging from the three or four teams expressing any interest, was probably a third-round draft pick at best.
Inheriting a team with a dearth of offensive talent, Howson hoped to find common ground and knew that Zherdev's desire for more ice time could be used as incentive.
"I told him, 'If you come into camp in better shape and you make yourself a better teammate, we'll play you as much as you can take,' " Howson said.
Zherdev was encouraged, but he knew that Hitchcock was the keeper of the ice time. In their first season together, Zherdev and Hitchcock seemed as incompatible as Apple and Microsoft, Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly.
Hitchcock adheres to demanding defensive principles. Zherdev prefers a free-flowing game, a jazz musician on skates with no use for sheet music. His inconsistencies and failure to assimilate irritated Hitchcock.
In the offseason, however, the coach tried a different tack. He called Dallas Stars defenseman Sergei Zubov, who helped Hitchcock win a Stanley Cup in 1999, to glean information about dealing with creative players.
Zubov was traded twice in his first four seasons and had considered going back to Russia to play. Hitchcock asked Zubov what had changed. The defenseman's response: I finally found a coach who trusted me.
That coach was Ken Hitchcock.
The Jackets weren't the only ones about to change their approach. Hedges asked Zherdev to return to North America a month early to work with a personal trainer and live in Ottawa with the agent's family.
Zherdev agreed, leaving behind his parents, older sister, nephew and
17-year-old girlfriend, Angela. In Ottawa, he bonded with the agent's three
teenage kids and became comfortable speaking English around them. By September,
Zherdev felt physically and emotionally prepared for the season, the wayward
one ready to rejoin the flock.
During a training-camp scrimmage, Zherdev lost his check in front of the net and the opponent he was marking converted a crisp pass into a goal. Zherdev slowly skated over to Foote, tapped the defenseman's shin pads and smiled.
"It was Z's way of saying he had screwed up," Foote said. "He was showing accountability."
Zherdev struggled through the preseason, managing a solitary assist in six games. He also had trouble adjusting to a new position (center), a short-lived experiment that Hitchcock scrubbed after two weeks.
Despite on-ice difficulties, teammates and coaches noticed a difference in Zherdev's demeanor. He was more upbeat and engaged. He communicated with linemates on the bench, a rarity in previous seasons. Hitchcock said Zherdev's English had improved to the point where all of his instructions were understood.
Trust took root.
"Hitchcock explained to me in meetings (during training camp) how he wants me to play defensively and how he doesn't want me to play only offense," Zherdev said.
Zherdev contributed six points in his first six regular-season games. Fedorov saw a coaching staff loosening the reigns, plying Zherdev with more freedom.
"The coaches have allowed him to be more creative out there," Fedorov said. "I think that is most important for him, to be creative."
Hitchcock also is learning to live with Zherdev's mistakes. On Dec. 1 in Calgary, Zherdev was stripped of the puck in the closing seconds of a tie game and the Flames nearly scored at the buzzer.
Some wondered whether Hitchcock would plaster Zherdev's fanny to the bench. Instead, Zherdev didn't miss an overtime shift and the Jackets won in overtime.
"Nikky is making significant strides," Hitchcock said. "His plusses outweigh his minuses."
Zherdev's good friend, Alexander Radulov of the Nashville Predators, sees a player who now looks comfortable in the team game. He points to Zherdev's willingness to check, throw open-ice hits and pass the puck instead of hogging it.
In a Dec. 29 win over Carolina, Zherdev could have recorded his first hat trick but passed instead to a teammate for an empty-net goal.
Zherdev's newfound commitment has manifested itself in other ways. He suffered a charley horse Jan. 8 in St. Louis but didn't miss a game. Zherdev was so determined to play in the Jan. 11 rematch, Howson said, that Zherdev forced himself to sleep awkwardly with his knee bent to stretch the quadriceps and minimize the rehab time.
Zherdev scored two goals that night, and two games later he sealed a victory over Vancouver by diving in front of a last-minute shot and blocking it.
"You are always being tested by your teammates every day, and I think you have to show them that you are committed," Hitchcock said. "When you do those things, it helps connect you to your team."
Zherdev said he enjoys playing for Hitchcock and isn't envious of more wide-open systems. He says he has found happiness in Columbus and the Jackets' locker room. He has built a friendship with defenseman Jan Hejda -- the two were teammates on the Central Red Army team -- and has become more involved with others, as well.
The player who spent last season brooding over the hand he was dealt now gladly contributes to the pot. He is a regular in the card games.
Zherdev remains quiet by nature. Radulov says he's not even talkative among good friends, many of whom are non-hockey types living near his upscale Arena District townhouse.
These are good days for Zherdev, who's second on the team behind Nash in scoring with 24 goals and 28 assists.
Last week, when the Jackets were pursuing center Brad Richards in a trade, one of the most tantalizing options would have been to dangle Zherdev. Howson never considered it. In fact, he never mentioned Zherdev's name to any rival general manager in the run up to Tuesday's deadline.
A player who might have been dealt for a third-round pick last summer is becoming part of the franchise's bedrock. Who saw it coming?
Perhaps Zherdev has a better poker face than anyone suspects.
Ohio State graduate student Larysa Stepanova served as a translator for this article.
"I was not able to feel my game on the ice (last season). The coach didn't have enough trust in me. This year, I feel like the coach trusts me … That's made it a lot better."