Any time you take a player ranked 15th among North American skaters at No. 26, just like the Montreal Canadiens did with Nikita Scherbak in the first round of the 2014 NHL entry draft, you have to consider it a decent pick.
No. 15 is indeed where Central Scouting had Scherbak, the 6’1”, 175-pound Russian Saskatoon Blades forward. Granted, International Scouting Services (ISS) had him at 27th overall, but, nevertheless, it’s clear Montreal got one of the players with the most upside of all those remaining by the time it reached the podium.
Picking at their lowest-ever position in the first round at No. 26 after reaching the Eastern Conference Final, the Habs opted for a high-risk, high-reward selection. Scherbak is a playmaking Russian who projects as a potential second-line forward (he played all three positions this year) or bust.
Considering there are some analysts who would argue that this is weak draft, Habs fans should be happy the Canadiens went the way they did. Sure, they could have instead gone with a safer pick, a non-Russian with a little more size who might have only had a ceiling as high as a third-liner.
However, third-liners are readily available every offseason via free agency. And Scherbak is 6’1” and will likely fill out a little more. And while there is always the risk he will bolt to the Kontinental Hockey League, he did come over to play in the Western Hockey League, which is a good sign.
Another good reason to be optimistic this pick pans out is the presence of fellow Russians Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov and Alex Galchenyuk (who’s officially American, but everyone secretly thinks is a Soviet spy).
Now, Scherbak isn’t ready for the NHL yet. And considering former first-rounder Louis Leblanc never established himself as a Hab after being picked five years ago, there’s a very real possibility Scherbak doesn’t make it before Markov retires. Even if that ends up being the case, Montreal has proven to be a city in which Europeans—and Eurasians—from all countries can thrive (or, admittedly, fail epically depending on the player).
Another reason to be optimistic in regard to Scherbak’s potential is his performance this past year on a near-last-place team. He scored 78 points (28 goals) in 65 games, 44 more than the second-highest scorer to finish the season in Saskatoon. If Scherbak can put up points on a low-on-talent team, then in theory, he should be able to dominate on a very good one.
On the other hand, one of the last times the Habs went out and picked a very good player on a bad team in the first round, they ended up with Marcel Hossa of the Portland Winter Hawks in 2000. Hossa only played 59 games with the Habs over three seasons before being traded to the New York Rangers for fourth-liner Garth Murray and ultimately leaving for the KHL.
So, one has to at least acknowledge that as being possible with Scherbak. He can very well turn out to be a bust. On the positive side, he doesn’t have an older brother the Habs should have taken three years earlier instead of Jason Ward. So, yeah, that’s something.
The bottom line is the Habs probably picked the best offensive and most exciting player available. It might not work out, but give them credit for going big or going home. Even if Scherbak ends up going home to Russia himself, it’s not like the Habs had many better options.
Excluding defense-oriented players Adrian Kempe and Ryan MacInnis, Scherbak was the best forward still standing at No. 27, according to ISS. He was immediately followed by two other Russians on their rankings: Nikolay Goldobin and Vladislav Kamenev, both of whom are shorter than Scherbak, with the latter being more of a flight risk to Russia...or, even worse, not a flight risk at all seeing as he still plays in Russia.
Really, in picking Scherbak, the Habs get an A for the first-round selection, as there’s little else they could have done to assure themselves of a sure thing.
The NHL entry draft continues on Saturday, with the Montreal Canadiens’ next pick at No. 87. They also have the No. 117, 125, 147, 177 and 207 picks.