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|30 октября 2008
Rangers hope Zherdev is no Kovalev // Newsday
Nikolai Zherdev controls the puck
Rangers winger Nikolai Zherdev controls the puck against the Senators' Antoine Vermette. (Getty Images Photo / September 22, 2008)
Tom Renney surely wasn't smiling on the bench Monday night at Nassau Coliseum when Nikolai Zherdev blindly threw the puck into the high slot in his own zone, teeing up a shot for Kyle Okposo that nearly beat Henrik Lundqvist.
Renney did manage a laugh on Wednesday morning, though, when asked if he'd discussed that blunder with Zherdev.
"I'm not a great coach," Renney said, "but I'm not an idiot."
Neither is Zherdev, though one might question how a player with even more than a few spins around the ice could do that with the puck. Of course, the Rangers did have Marek Malik on the squad, so recent memory for fans may be filled with such giveaways.
Think of him the way you once may have thought of Alex Kovalev: Both were first-round picks (Kovalev the 15th pick by the Rangers in 1991, Zherdev the fourth pick by the Blue Jackets in 2003), both arrived in the NHL a year later with plenty of hype and both struggled with the two-way aspects of the game.
Both were dynamic offensively, too. And that hasn't changed for either of them, even now with Kovalev the grand old man of 35 in Montreal. Zherdev is more reserved where Kovalev was open and goofy, trying to learn English along with some of his other hobbies, like flying.
One of Zherdev's Columbus teammates called him a "diva." Doug MacLean, the Columbus president/GM who drafted Zherdev, never quite jelled with the kid. People called him soft, aloof, disinterested -- code words for most European players who need a little more time to pick up life in North America.
With his arrival in New York, Zherdev, who turns 24 next week, has a chance to be on a bigger NHL stage with a coach who tries harder than most to understand his players rather than bark at them.
"There was plenty of film to look at on him," Renney said, "but the important stuff to me is what kind of person he is. I think we've got a special young man on our hands."
He's already shown what he can do and how much fun he can have doing it -- the celebration after his tying goal against the Penguins on Saturday was as much a joy to watch as his flying rush and wrist shot over Marc-Andre Fleury's shoulder.
Then, there are the moments like Monday. Kovalev maddened everyone around him for years by trying to do too much with the puck and would routinely overstay his shifts, looking for goals.
He did that even in the Cup season of 1994, even with Mark Messier and Mike Keenan around to break Kovalev of his habits.
Zherdev is older now than Kovalev was then. Wiser, too, one hopes, after four seasons of futility in Columbus. His plus/minus is a league- best +9, which says a little about his attention to detail in his own zone.
There's another plus: He's got teammates now who prefer to lead by example. Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan, who made his departure official Wednesday, were too far beyond their prime to be that kind of leader. Shanahan always knew the right thing to say, and Jagr played class clown well to Shanahan's class president, but neither had the skills left to be the good example for a player like Zherdev.
He's got plenty of those guys now to emulate. So far it's paying off.
Even if he needed a small reminder after Monday.