This is the sixth article in a short series of in-depth looks at the top New York Rangers players who are 25 years of age or younger.
The Rangers' 23-year-old winger is such an enigma that even their website has nothing to say in his Bio/News section.
What kind of year will Nikolai Zherdev have with the New York Rangers? Will he perform up to potential? Can he be motivated by the Rangers' coaching staff? Will he fit in at the clubhouse or will he be a trouble-maker?
The Rangers are trying not to focus on the maelstrom of what-ifs about Zherdev. Instead, they are zoning in on the excellent qualities that Zherdev exhibits when he puts on skates.
According to TSN, general manager Glen Sather had this to say about the Rangers' newest acquisition: "Zherdev is a player we've tried to acquire for a while. He's a talented, shifty winger with lots of upside."
Talk about an understatement.
Zherdev's wealth of talent was put on prominent display over the past NHL season, when he posted 26 goals and 35 assists in 82 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets. With excellent skating and standout stick-handling, Zherdev can even do his best Bobby Orr impression, showing a knack for coast-to-coast creativity.
The former fourth overall pick in 2003, Zherdev did not join the Blue Jackets baggage-free. The Columbus Dispatch reported the following in July 2008:
"Zherdev has been a lightning rod in Columbus since the Blue Jackets made him the No. 4 overall pick in the 2003 entry draft. The magnificent individual plays, maddening turnovers and an icy relationship with players, coaches, and management that seemed to finally warm last season—it all was part of Z's aura."
Zherdev was born in Kiev, Ukraine, but has citizenship in Russia as well. Perhaps his multiple identities have helped add to Zherdev's atmosphere of mystery. He certainly became a question mark for the Columbus front office.
And his loyalty to the NHL may come into question. Since making his debut for the Blue Jackets in the 2003-04 season, Zherdev has played in the Russian Super League (RSL) twice, perhaps foreshadowing a desire to return to more familiar grounds, like former Rangers' player Martin Straka (he returned to his native Czech Republic).
However, at 6'2", 205 pounds Zherdev has the tools to be the type of physical force in the NHL that Jagr was—perhaps not in checking or fighting, but in shielding the puck from defensive players with one hand and sticking with the rubber with the other.
Zherdev is only 23 years old, and the young winger has much to learn. Being a young player in a completely new city, a new world, really, must be difficult. At least in moving to New York, Zherdev cuts the distance to his native Kiev to just shy of 4,700 miles.
He will certainly need some guidance this coming season. Maybe newly brought-in defenseman Dimitri Kalinin will be a calming influence and mentor to Zherdev. Kalinin, a former first round pick himself, was born in Chelyabinsk, in the former Soviet Union.
The Rangers hope that three seasons with the Jackets have helped mold Zherdev into a more pliant teammate in the clubhouse and a defiant competitor on the ice.
The Rangers are looking forward to a warmer Zherdev blazing hot streaks down the cold ice come October.
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