What if I told you that the Rangers once had a 23 year old, 60 point player on their roster and just...let him go after one year of solid play?
Well, in the 2008-09 season the Rangers had Nikolai Zherdev and his team leading (tied with Scott Gomez) 58 points. Traded to the Rangers in the 2008 offseason along with Dan Fritsche for Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman, Nik Zherdev came to Broadway with the reputation of being a very talented young forward with the "enigmatic" label slapped on him (We'll get back to this a little later). Playing mostly with Brandon Dubinsky as his center Zherdev became a staple on the Rangers middle two lines and put up a 23-35-58 line.
Zherdev had all the tools; a wicked release, quick hands, speed, and great acceleration. He could fly and release deadly snap shots almost on a whim. Here a just a couple of gifs that show off his skills
Nice quick hands and a perfect no look feed to Brandon Dubinsky who was wide open to tap in the goal
Steals the puck, accelerates through the neutral zone and rips it five hole on Evgeni Nabokov when he was a good goalie.
One of the unsung benefits of the massive growth in hockey analysis is the ability to go back through the years and utilize the new tools and ideas to delve deeper into who these players were and whether the production matched the reputation. Zherdev was labeled as "mercurial", and "enigmatic", and pretty much all of the regular labels and buzzwords writers would give to young, Russian talents (again, more on this later). Now, thanks to sites like War on Ice, Own the Puck, and Hockey Analysis, we can go back and see how well Zherdev played, how he impacted his teammates, and how his production matched his ice time.
Here's a look at Zherdev's production played out on a HERO chart, courtesy of Own the Puck
You can see how Zherdev's play as a Ranger translated into being a very very good young player.
via War On Ice, we can see that Zherdev was very good at driving and sustaining play, he put up a 62.8% possession while only getting 20.9% zone starts. Showing that he was able to get the puck up the ice and keep it there. He was also had a very good impact on possession relative to his teammates, putting up an impressive 13.6% CFRel. For a 23 year old, the Ukrainian forward was establishing himself as one of the better young talents in the game.
Nik also had a great effect on his teammates:
Every teammate that was on the ice with Zherdev for meaningful minutes improved significantly and saw a bounce up in possession. The evidence is there that Nik Zherdev was on his to being something great but the big question that was always there was "why?" Why couldn't this kid stick in the NHL with talent like this?
While I am loath to believe all of the stereotypes attached to Russian players, they do exist for a reason. Before he was traded by Columbus, Blue Jackets General Manager Doug MacLean hired a private investigator to figure out what exactly was going on with his young stud winger before shipping out to New York. Unfortunately for Zherdev his troubles continued in the KHL.
So what to make of all of this? Personally, Zherdev will be one of the biggest "what if" stories of the last few years with the Rangers and probably one of the bigger draft busts in recent memory. Nik had all the talent in the world to run over the league but he just couldn't get out of his own way. I'll always appreciate Zherdev for his on ice production for the Rangers and will always wish he got a better opportunity on Broadway.