Inside the Flyers: Flyers' Zherdev: Does offensive firepower make up for weak defensive play?

Nik Zherdev puts the puck past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist in the second period.
Nik Zherdev puts the puck past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist in the second period.
Posted: December 19, 2010

It's no secret that Flyers winger Nik Zherdev hasn't been one of management's most popular players.

Slowly, however, he is making his way out of the doghouse.

It has been an interesting two-plus months for the 26-year-old Zherdev, who earlier this season complained to general manager Paul Holmgren about his playing time. That didn't go over too well.

Then there were his frequent defensive lapses. That didn't go over well, either. Not with his hard-driving coach, Peter Laviolette, whose system relies on strong two-way play.

Laviolette was so down on Zherdev that he demoted him to the fourth line on Nov. 20, putting him with Blair Betts and Jody Shelley. He was also a healthy scratch on three occasions.

When the Flyers signed Zherdev to a one-year free-agent contract in July, they didn't pay him $2 million so he could be on a checking line or be a bystander in the press box. They signed him, after he played a year in Russia, because they hoped he would regain the scoring touch he had with Columbus and the New York Rangers.

And here's the rub: Zherdev has been just as advertised. The Flyers knew what they were getting when they signed him: a gifted offensive player who sometimes seems allergic to playing defense.

Again, that was his reputation during his earlier NHL seasons and in his one season in Russia's KHL.

That's not to say he shouldn't be defensively responsible. Or that he can't work harder.

But regardless of his defensive shortcomings, Zherdev is a valuable contributor because of his dazzling offensive skills - and should not (repeat: should not) be traded.

The Flyers have supposedly been listening to offers for the enigmatic winger.

They should stop listening.

"Z," as he is known, has too much talent to be let go. He may not always play both ways, a la Simon Gagne. But he was signed to replace Gagne's offense, and last we looked, he was doing that at an eye-opening rate.

Quiet and shy, Zherdev doesn't like talking to the media. His English is passable, but he frequently waves reporters away, leading the league in "no comments."

But he wasn't brought in to be one of the team's spokesmen.

He was brought here to score, and he is on a 31-goal pace.

Zherdev has 13 goals, which is more than the Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk, Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaff, and Martin St. Louis of Tampa Bay.

More, in fact, than hundreds of others.

Zherdev is averaging 12 minutes, 11 seconds of ice time per game. That put him 554th in the league.

Yet, he was tied for 20th in the NHL in goals heading into Saturday night's games.

He was scoring at a higher rate than most NHL players, including a guy named Alex Ovechkin.

Entering Saturday, Ovechkin had 12 goals in 709 minutes, an average of a goal every 59.1 minutes.

Zherdev has 13 goals in 378 minutes, an average of one goal every 29 minutes.

No one is suggesting Zherdev is in the same stratosphere as Ovechkin. But his numbers do show his big-play capabilities, and how his speed and dynamic stickhandling make him such a dangerous weapon. It should also be noted that Zherdev has been productive despite being used sparingly on the power play, averaging a little over a minute per game on that unit.

It's taken a while, but Zherdev seems to be slowly starting to win over Laviolette. Lately, he has been more responsible on the defensive end - overall, he is plus-5 - and he scored goals to key consecutive wins over Pittsburgh and Montreal last week.

It's no coincidence that Zherdev has excelled while on a new line with Jeff Carter and James van Riemsdyk, a development that started against the Penguins.

In their first three games as a unit, the line combined for seven goals, 12 points, and 36 shots, along with a plus-8 rating.

Laviolette even gave Zherdev 2:24 of power-play time - the most he has had since Nov. 4 - during Saturday's 4-1 win over the Rangers.

If he continues to play both ends of the ice, Zherdev will probably get increased power-play time. That could help him surpass his career high for goals in a season - 27 for Columbus in 2005-06.

It might even keep him out of the doghouse.


Inside the Flyers:

Read Sam Carchidi's Flyers blog,

"Broad Street Bull,"

at http://go.philly.com/bsb.

Blog response of the week

Subject: Chris Pronger being sidelined for 4-6 weeks.

Posted 1:13 p.m. 12/17/2010

By SPro

The Flyers will be able to handle this. Pronger gets rest, which will be great for playoffs ... and we get to see who steps up on the power play now. Getting Bartulis time now will be beneficial in the future because when Pronger gets back you can bet not everyone on the D will be healthy.


Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at 215-854-5181 or scarchidi@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BroadStBull.

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