MONTREAL — If Nikita Scherbak’s going to make it in the NHL, it’s likely going to be with another team.
Unfortunate as that may be for the Montreal Canadiens, who drafted Scherbak 26th overall in 2014 and had high hopes for him, it’s a reality they’re clearly willing to live with. On Saturday, following unsuccessful attempts to trade him, they placed the first-rounder on waivers.
There’s a chance Scherbak will sneak through and be demoted to the AHL’s Laval Rocket on Sunday, but it’s more likely he’ll be claimed. At least one team out there might believe he can eventually adapt his skills to this level after producing 28 goals and 95 points in 145 AHL games and five goals and two assists in 29 NHL contests. Heck, even the Canadiens might be on that wavelength.
But with many options to choose from up front — even slightly more established NHLers in Charles Hudon and Matthew Peca are being scratched from Montreal’s lineup for Saturday’s game against the New York Rangers — and a waning patience level with Scherbak’s development, the Canadiens are accepting the risk that they’ll lose the Moscow native for nothing if he gets claimed.
It’s not ideal in terms of asset management if things end up working out that way, but you can see why the team is going down this road. Scherbak has NHL size, NHL skill, NHL speed, and an NHL shot, but he hasn’t even come close to finding a way to put it all together to prove he can be an NHL player.
It’s not a question of effort, either. The 6-foot-2, 192-pounder, who will turn 23 at the end of this month, hired a skating coach over the summer to improve his stride. He went to lengths to identify other areas to improve and did his best to exhibit the finished product at this year’s training camp.
But he failed (miserably) at that, leaving the Canadiens in (justifiable) doubt that his processor could bring out his obvious talent. In truth, that doubt has been there for the better part of four years and it was all but completely reinforced over that three-week period.
Many Canadiens fans will argue that Scherbak wasn’t given a fair shake, but that’s a load of you-know-what. He was competing to seize one of many jobs that were up for grabs after the Canadiens bottomed out with a 28th-place finish in last year’s standings, and the fact that he was waiver eligible for the first time in his career gave him a leg up to stick around — with the team initially not wanting to risk losing him without recuperating an asset.
But Scherbak didn’t even put himself in the mix with how he performed. He was told in no uncertain terms how to unlock his potential, but he couldn’t figure out which step to take first in order to allow himself to flourish.
“I know that when he plays with a certain pace, when he’s skating really well, he’s so big and he makes things happen,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien as the September experiment was unfolding. “At the same time, with his size, if he can be hard on the puck and protect it and do a good job … . He’s got skill, he can shoot the puck [and] he’s got good vision but, like almost every player, the feet is what dictates whether he’ll have success.”
In five pre-season games, Scherbak somehow managed to score two goals. Damned if he ever appeared like the player Julien wanted to see over that time.
Scherbak was lost on positioning, lost in the system, lost in general, and all of that left him caught between not being an ideal fit for an energy role on the fourth line and not having a complete enough game to handle minutes — and assignments — on one of the top three lines.
The Canadiens tried to buy themselves time with this player. After scratching him through October, they sent him down to the AHL for a conditioning stint and hoped he could benefit from playing big minutes over a packed schedule for the two weeks he was slated to be there. They hoped that perhaps he could show something that would make him an attractive piece in a trade, knowing he was in tough to wrestle away a job from one of their many wingers.
But after five games with the Rocket, over which signs of progress were virtually unidentifiable, Scherbak suffered a lower-body injury and was recalled to Montreal.
Now that he’s on the cusp of being re-activated, the Canadiens don’t have the roster space — or incentive — to choose him over someone else. There’s too much uncertainty when it comes to his ability to pierce through at this level to expose themselves to the risk of losing another player for nothing.
Perhaps Scherbak will get his chance with another NHL team. It could even come this week. But the fact that that outcome is even in doubt tells you all you need to know about why the Canadiens are willing to live with the decision to waive him.
Regardless of the optics of bad asset management lingering, we can’t blame them for choosing to go this way at this point in time.