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During the first two-thirds of 2010-2011 season, Nikolay Zherdev was probably not among Flyer fans' (or Flyer coaches', for that matter) favorite players. More or less every warning about Zherdev had come true to some extent: his work ethic was in question, he wasn't playing physical hockey despite his size, his defensive play was terrible on a good day and he was the most selfish offensive player on a team with Jeff Carter.
Then everything started to change. The Flyers put Zherdev on waivers, where he went unclaimed. Perhaps that was the reality-check the Ukrainian/Russian mini-star needed to realize he needed to make a change. Call it his Danny Briere moment. Call it tough less-than-love. Any way you spin it, Zherdev hit hockey's version of rock-bottom.
After that, Zherdev started to turn things around. He began to push himself to work harder, he stayed at practice longer, he worked on his defense, he started to buy into Laviolette's system. And the coaches started to notice.
By the end of the season and into the playoffs, Zherdev had become one of the only Flyers (along with JVR and Giroux) who was consistently able to create his own scoring chances. He played physically. He actually back-checked. He played something that resembled respectable defense. He finally looked like a player who belonged on a Flyers team.
And that is exactly why the Flyers should try to re-sign Zherdev at a modest cap hit ($1.5 to $2 million) and put him on a third line with youngsters Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds.
Both of those young players are likely to perform much better if they are on the ice with a playmaker. Simmonds' offensive success most often comes when he is able to get to the front of the net and pick up rebounds or quick passes. Zherdev is more than capable of getting his own shot and putting it on net with consistency. That, in turn, allows Simmonds to do what he does best: bang away at rebounds and loose pucks until they end up in the back of the net.
Schenn is best when he is given time to find open ice then either shoot or pass to the open man as the defense converges. Zherdev will distract opposing defenseman with his puck-possession abilities, thereby allowing Schenn to find a soft-spot and make a play.
Zherdev is not suited to a top-six role at this stage of his career. But as a third-line winger with limited responsibilities and defensively responsible line-mates, he can be a 20-25 goal scorer and a 40-50 point player. That is solid production at a very reasonable price.