Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Flyers Take a Gamble on Zherdev

By: Tim Brennan

The reigning Eastern Conference champions were one of the most active teams during the beginning stages of free agency. In the weeks since, reports that Flyers mainstay Simon Gagne would be traded due to the lack of cap space started to surface. On top of that, there were rumors swirling that Nikolai Zherdev would be returning to the NHL this season... in orange and black. The latter turned out to be true, with Zherdev penning a one year, $2 million deal in the early hours of July 9th.

Zherdev, the former fourth overall draft pick in 2003, returns to the NHL after spending last season starring for Atlant Mytischi of the Kontinental Hockey League. The Kiev, Ukraine native scored 13 goals and 39 points in 52 games during the 2009-10 season.

The Flyers make this move while still over the cap limit and in need of re-signing a dozen free agents. General manager Paul Holmgren decided to pick up yet another player with a colorful past for clashing with team management and becoming problematic for their franchise. If you've already forgotten, Holmgren signed goaltender Ray Emery last off season to a one year deal, considered a low risk, high reward type contract. And we all know how that worked out for the Flyers last year.

Zherdev is a talented forward, one with a skill set and offensive ability unmatched by most in the league. However, he's considered an enigma and has a track record of creating tension in and outside of the locker room. Along with those not so great qualities, Zherdev plays lackadaisically in the defensive zone, doesn't produce on a consistent basis and proves that a lazy player doesn't get far.

You might ask, "What happened that makes him such a wild card?". If you talk to anyone connected to the Columbus Blue Jackets or New York Rangers, they can provide you with plenty of examples.

Zherdev averaged 19 goals and 45 points during his 4 seasons in Ohio. But behind the scenes, Zherdev's lack of work ethic along with taking nights off didn't bode well with Columbus management. After a breakthrough season in 2005-06, Zherdev ran into problems with the team over a new contract, giving Columbus an ultimatum: either they agree to the contract that he felt he deserved or Zherdev would return to Russia. The Blue Jackets would eventually re-sign Zherdev to a three year deal, but would deal with plenty of inconsistency during that time period.

Columbus would deal Zherdev to the New York Rangers along with Dan Fritsche for Christian Backman and Fedor Tyutin on July 2nd, 2008. In his first and only season in the Big Apple, the Russian right wing tied for the team lead in points with 58. The 2008-09 campaign saw two sides of Zherdev: one that looked to be the best player on the team anytime he stepped out on the ice and the other which looked to be a player to caught up in himself. Zherdev received plenty of criticism from fiery head coach John Tortorella, resulting in being benched more than once for poor defensive play and lack of effort. Problems arose in the off season following when the Rangers tendered Zherdev a qualifying offer of $3.25 million for the next season. Once again, a dispute between the disgruntled winger and an NHL team's management ensued, leading to an arbitration hearing. The arbitrator awarded Zherdev $3.9 million, resulting in the Rangers walking away and allowing him to become a free agent.

All of this led to a return to Russia and now he's back in the NHL. But why exactly did the Flyers need to make such a maneuver?

According to Holmgren, Zherdev is a player filled with talent that just needs a second chance and is a perfect fit with the core of forwards that they possess. And Simon Gagne isn't? Gagne is just as skilled offensively as Zherdev is and is less of a risk on the team's chemistry and management. Maybe Holmgren felt that Zherdev could be the missing link that would put Philly over the top and win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1975. But wait, Zherdev's resume in the playoffs is slim and disappointing: 7 games and 0 points in 2008-09 for the Rangers. What good is it to exchange Gagne, who has been a consistent performer, not to mention a popular player within the organization and class act for someone as incongruous as Zherdev?

Come October 7th, we shall all know which Zherdev decided to show up.

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