There is a segment of Canadiens fans that holds up Nikita Scherbak as a player who's closer to the NHL than he actually is. So we discuss if he can crack the Canadiens roster, since he's got skill and size, and we need both, he's a prospect atypical to the Sven Andrighettos and Charles Hudons.
When he fails to make it, we wonder whether the injuries lingered, or whether his AHL coach is mean to him and put him at centre which confused the poor kid, or whether he's nervous at his third pro camp, and if he can just settle down and get it right.
The actual problem with Nikita Scherbak, the reason he can't make an NHL roster right now, is lack of conditioning, that he's not physically ready for the pro game. He got muscled off the puck and pushed out of the play in the corners at the Rookie Tournament in London. Yesterday, the RDS boys were mentioning how he'd fall to the ice when subjected to contact.
This isn't simply speculation on my part, which we could engage in if we wanted. We could look at his Draft+1 year, when he obtained essentially the same point total as his draft year, which is troubling, a kid a year older should be stronger, faster, better than the average competition around him. We explained it away with the quote from his head coach in Everett Kevin Constantine that he was learning how to play defensively, concentrating on this aspect, which is fine, in a vacuum, except that every other kid in the CHL is learning how to play defensively, and still increasing his point totals from year to year.
And if he was learning how to play defensively, how did he end up with the poorest +/- on the IceCaps last season, by a wide margin? Sure, plus-minus is an imperfect stat, but it provides a general indication here. Nikita isn't an undrafted 'energy' fourth-liner who's trying to hang on to an AHL job, he's a first-round NHL prospect. That he should have that poor a stat line, that he should have the worst performance on the team, with an injury-riddled partial season and the revolving door on the roster of a team that failed to make the playoffs is telling.
So instead of speculation and deduction, let's look at the evidence:
1) During the 2015-16 season, while he was calling a game, RDS' Norman Flynn stated, as a matter of fact, not as if it was his opinion, that Nikita Scherbak was at 'around 80% of where the Canadiens wanted him to be physically to compete in the AHL'. You got the sense that he got this evaluation from the horse's mouth, that when he was doing his pre-game notes a coach told him this.
2) At the end of the season, when IceCaps coach Sylvain Lefebvre was doing the team's post-mortem with the media and discussing specific players, he said flatly that Nikita needed to work on his strength and conditioning to improve as a player, that was his marching orders during the exit interview, they made it clear to him.
3) At the Rookie Tournament, Canadiens Player Development Director Martin Lapointe said, as he was discussing players who'd shown up in great shape to training camp, that some players get it, and in Nikita's case, some take a little longer to get it.
I was surprised when these rumblings first came out, since Nikita started the 2015 Summer of Nikita training in Calgary (the home of his agent) with a bunch of other young WHL'ers and prospects. There were instagrammed pictures and videos of him working out, and one of him losing his lunch in a garbage can after a workout. So I thought he was doing the work. But he apparently didn't keep it up the rest of the summer, when his social media pictures were more of vacation spots and of a social nature.
This summer he spent in Brossard, and it was explained that the team asked him to train with Pierre Allard, and that he was happy to do so. Which is great, but demonstrates that they didn't trust in his ability and knowledge and entourage and facilities when he trains on him own, unlike Jarred Tinordi and Mike McCarron's program in London with a bunch of ex-Knights.
So this is where we are with Nikita. His draft season, when David Pastrnak got some NHL games in with the Bruins, I sniffed that it was just an accident of the rules, the Bruins' prospect was drafted out of Europe, whereas Nikita was picked from the WHL, so we couldn't send him to the AHL and call him up for a few games. And David Pastrnak is still slender and a work in progress, but so far is able to play in the NHL, while Nikita is struggling in the AHL.
Nikita has tonnes of talent, and will flash those skills occasionally, tantalizing us with his potential, but he needs to work on his fitness so that he can show more than flashes, so he can consistently dominate play, so he can avoid injury. He's not quite there yet, he'll need another year in the AHL and more time in the gym to compete in the NHL.