Talented Zherdev remains man of mystery for Flyers

Nikolai Zherdev (right) can be a big-time goal scorer for Flyers.
Nikolai Zherdev (right) can be a big-time goal scorer for Flyers.
Posted: September 27, 2010

BEHIND A TINTED visor, Nikolai Zherdev's eyes are hidden like a poker player at the final table of a big tournament.

Through 2 weeks in Philadelphia, Zherdev remains every bit of the enigma he was when he skated back to Russia in 2009 after an arbitration dispute with the New York Rangers.

His shaded visor is just one hint of the complex character that he is, both on and off the ice.

"He's hard to figure out," one longtime NHL scout said in the press box in Toronto on Friday, shortly before Zherdev went on to score twice to spark the Flyers to a two-goal comeback win. "Every other shift, he looks like a completely different player."

There is little doubt Zherdev can score. Claude Giroux, his linemate on Friday night, said Zherdev has the best hands he's ever seen in his 3 years of pro hockey.

"My career is obviously not that long, but he's probably one of the highest skilled players I've ever played with," Giroux said. "He's got some sick hands. His hockey sense is unbelievable, he always knows to be in the right position. He knows where to go on the ice."

Zherdev scored again on Saturday in Minnesota, giving him three goals in three preseason contests. But the Flyers knew he could score when they gave him a 1-year, $2 million contract to come back to the NHL. What remains to be seen is whether Zherdev has the willingness to battle for pucks and play meticulous defense.

More importantly, the Flyers are looking for consistency. Zherdev has posted 27, 10, 26 and 23 goals in his last four NHL seasons.

"He should be a 30-goal player," the same scout said. "He has the talent to be a 40-goal scorer. But you have to be really consistent to score 40 goals."

In three meaningless exhibition games, Zherdev has taken shifts off. He has not been perfect. But he is also trying to pick up Peter Laviolette's system that has a different wrinkle to the standard left-wing lock.

Zherdev is trying to adjust to that, and get in shape, learn his teammates' tendencies, and get readjusted to the North American game, all at the same time.

"It's always difficult when you come over from a different league, from a different place," Laviolette said. "I think he's getting it. There is always a learning period. But he finds time and space. His hands are quick, he gets shots off quick, he gets passes off quick. He adds that quickness to his skill level."

"When you don't have to think about it, and you can just do it, that's when the system works," Giroux explained.

Zherdev is not there yet.

Zherdev has granted just one interview since arriving in Philadelphia on Sept. 15. Despite playing five seasons in the NHL - and Laviolette admitting there is no language barrier - he is not comfortable answering in English. He will not talk without an interpreter, not even in Russian with a reporter in Toronto.

Zherdev has never been adored by teammates. Here, only Latvian Oskars Bartulis can understand him in his native tongue. In the meantime, Zherdev is sharpening his English skills with lessons three times a week.

Perhaps in a few more weeks, we can get all get a glimpse into Zherdev's personality. Or not.

For now, it's way too early to make any sort of judgment, off the ice or on. Behind that mask, Zherdev could be bluffing. Or the Flyers could have an ace in the hole.

Slap shots

According to Paul Holmgren, Michael Leighton had an MRI yesterday and the team is awaiting results. Leighton reaggravated a lower back injury Friday night in Toronto . . . The Flyers cut 28 players yesterday; Adirondack Phantoms training camp opens today. Pat Maroon and Stefan Legein were the notable cuts. Mike Testwuide, Erik Gustafsson, Eric Wellwood, Andreas Nodl and Ben Holmstrom all remain in camp . . . For what it's worth: the Flyers (3-0-1) are the only team in NHL history to open the preseason with four straight shootouts . . . Claude Giroux (four points) is tied for second in scoring in the preseason. Among others, Giroux is tied with Simon Gagne, who has two goals and two assists in two preseason games with Tampa Bay . . . The Flyers travel to New Jersey tomorrow night.

Send e-mail to seravaf@phillynews.com

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