Thursday, August 06, 2009

Making The Case For Nikolai Zherdev

Now that the New York Rangers have decided to walk out on Nikolai Zherdev's recently awarded contract of $3.9 million, speculation has been rampant on whether or not the Maple Leafs are interested in bringing Zherdev to Toronto. As a now unrestricted free agent Zherdev is free to negotiate a new contract with any team, and in my opinion, Brian Burke would be ignoring his duties as Leafs General Manager were he not to try and sign the talented young Russian.

As GM, Burke's job is to do everything in his power to make the Leafs a better team. What better way to do that than to acquire a young top-line talent without having to trade away any draft picks or players? Now that the Rangers have walked away from him, bringing Zherdev into the fold would cost the Leafs nothing but cap space.

Now I have heard some of the negatives about him and why some Leafs fans are reluctant to see him signed. There is no shortage of talk about Nik's perceived "bad attitude" and lack of "work ethic." Another common knock from some fans is that Zherdev has "all the talent in the world, but no motivation to use it." While these are certainly valid concerns, it's a fact of life that sometimes you have to gamble and take risks in order to come out ahead. Lets face it: If Zherdev was known as a stand-up guy with an excellent reputation in addition to his high skill level, he wouldn't be available in the first place. The Rangers would have locked him up long ago and never let him reach arbitration.

The very fact that he is on the free agent market right now available to any team is proof enough that he doesn't come without his flaws. However, Zherdev is a project that could pay huge rewards for whatever team decides to take a chance on him. Nobody denies that his talent is huge. At just 24 years old he has posted two 50+ point seasons, and one 60+ point season. He has scored over 20 goals in three of the past four years. He has also earned a reputation as a reliable performer in the shootout-something the Leafs badly need. When you also consider the fact that Ron Wilson is known for being able to get the most out his players, it would seem the Maple Leafs have the perfect coach to straighten out Zherdev's perceived attitude issues.

Case in point-Mikhail Grabovski. Here is a player whose attitude was so bad that the Montreal Canadiens were happy to dump him for a modest return-even to a divisional rival. Ron Wilson has since coached Grabovski into an effective 2nd line centre who looks like he could be a key contributor to the Leafs for many more years. If he can straighten out Grabovski Im willing to bet he can straighten out Zherdev too. So why not take the risk? The Leafs badly need legitimate top-line players, and here is an oppurtunity to grab one for free off the open market. Zherdev has proved he is already an explosive offensive threat and can post top-line numbers. He would instantly be the Leafs best forward. If Wilson can keep him in line and instill a bit of work ethic, he could very well be a 70-80 point player for years to come.

So how can the Maple Leafs not take a chance on signing Nikolai Zherdev? This is one of those rare low risk/high reward situations. If he doesn't work out the Leafs can simply cut him loose next year and no harm is done. However, if he does live up to his talent than the Leafs will have aquired their elite scoring forward without giving up any assets. So Brian Burke, what have you got to lose? Pick up the phone and give Nik a call.