Enigmatic Nikolai Zherdev Latest Piece in N.Y. Rangers' Puzzling Off-Season

patrick bohnCorrespondent IAugust 5, 2009

WASHINGTON - APRIL 18: Nikolai Zherdev #13 of the New York Rangers skates against Nicklas Backstrom #19 (L) and Mike Green #52 (R) of the Washington Capitals during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Round of the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on April 18, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Nikolai Zherdev is an enigma.

In sport lexicon, the word enigma is rarely a good thing to have attached to your name. It usually means you're blessed with more talent than you display, or that the people paid to know how to use your talent can't figure out the best way how.

Knowing this was Zheredv's reputation in Columbus, can we be surprised that he continued to play that way for the Rangers? At times, he was brilliant; at times aloof.

And now he's gone, banished to unrestricted free agency after the Rangers walked away from his arbitration.

While many people will rejoice over getting rid of a guy like Zherdev, the kind of talent you can't count on for consistent play, I think it's part of a disturbing trend for the Rangers.

This team is going to be stuck in limbo for awhile.

Why? Despite their retooling of the roster this off-season, the Rangers aren't much better off than they were last season.

The Rangers main problem was putting the puck in the net. They ranked 28th in the NHL last season with a mere 200 goals. Only five players topped the 45-point mark last season.

Four of them—Zherdev, Nik Antropov, Marcus Naslund and Scott Gomez—are gone.

This does not strike me as a positive change.

Granted, Gomez's contract was killing the Rangers and Naslund's tank was empty, but for a goal-challenged team to drop most of their goal-scoring talent, well, that's got the possibility to create problems.

Now, there are going to be rebuttals, many centered on the addition of Marian Gaborik. He's a very talented player with 45-50-goal potential, if he can stay healthy.

Oh yeah, there's that. Gaborik's played in only 272 of his team's last 410 games. That's essentially 1/3 of his team's games missed over the last five seasons. The last time he played a season and didn't miss a chunk of time was 2003. And we're banking on him for five years?

Then there's everyone's favorite young sparkplugs, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky. Look, I know that young, cheap, homegrown guys with lots of energy are easy to fall in love with, but let's not go crazy here. Dubinsky's 13-28-41 line isn't much different from his rookie year campaign and to expect him to put up 70-75 points is unrealistic, regardless of his wingman.

As for Callahan, I know he scored 22 goals last season, but it took him 237 shots to do it. No-one on the Rangers had a high shooting percentage, but Callahan's ranked just 5th on the team (Minor contributors excluded).

What I'm saying is, Callahan and Dubinsky are solid 2nd line guys, but they'd have a hard time cracking most, if not all, teams top line.

Chris Drury? He's massively overrated, the product of the media's fascination with "clutch" and talented lineups around him. Don't believe me? Look at his numbers.

He's only topped 60 points (a relatively modest bar to clear) four times. Twice in Colorado in 2000 and 2001 playing with Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay on teams that went to the conference finals and won the Stanley Cup.

And twice for the 2006 and 2007 Buffalo Sabres, who also went to two conference finals and scored 281 and 308 goals those two seasons.

Drury's the kind of player who plays well when there are talented players around him. He's not the kind of player who makes mediocre players around him better. His career numbers don't lie. Ten seasons in the NHL, 578 points.

Solid production? Sure. But, much like Callahan and Dubinsky, that's the ceiling. Solid, but not game-changing production.

Other newcomers Chris Higgins, Brian Boyle, Tyler Arnason (speaking of enigmas) and Ales Kotalik are more of the same. Guys who are can score 15-25 goals and put up 45-55 points a season.

In other words, not a top-flight scorer in the bunch.

Teams don't win without top flight scorers in the NHL anymore. The days of constant 2-1 games are over. Here are the top two scorers from the five most recent NHL champions (Point totals only listed)

2009 Penguins: 113 and 103 points

2008 Red Wings: 97 and 93 points

2007 Ducks: 94 and 78 points

2006 Canes: 100 and two and 76 points

2004 Lightning: 94 and 80 points

The Rangers top two returning scorers from last season: 58 and 43 points. (Gomez and Kotalik)

As I learned on Sesame Street: "One of these things is not like the other"

Now maybe you're saying to yourself: "The Rangers will win because of Lundqvist, just like those Devils teams did and they didn't score a lot!"

There are two problems with this argument:

1) Martin Brodeur then > Henrik Lundqvist now

There's no other way to say it. Martin Broduer is arguably the greatest goaltender of all-time and he was in his prime back then. Lundqvist is a very good, sometimes great goalie who is still too inconsistent to be considered in Broduer's class (again, this is Broduer THEN, not now)

2) Scott Stevens + Scott Niedermayer > Every single Rangers defenseman since Brian Leetch.

Most teams are lucky to have one Hall of Fame defenseman. The Devils had two on the ice at the same time. The Rangers don't have anyone remotely that talented anywhere.

The Rangers, despite all their off-season maneuvering, still lack top-flight scoring. And without that (or a dramatically improved blueline) they will not be able to contend this season.

Releasing Zherdev might help locker room chemisty. But it won't help on-ice production either. Which means the Rangers are probably going to be hanging around the 6-10 spots in the East next year.





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