The official National Hockey League team of the State of Hockey has never been known for its Russians, which was a big part of what made the acquisition of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov late last season so interesting. Unlike a potential draft pick, however, Bryzgalov had a consistent track record as an NHLer. However, could the enigmatic netminder have unwittingly paved the way for future Russian players in St. Paul?
According to The Hockey News Magazine's 2014 Draft Preview, the player projected to go 18th overall--the same slot the Minnesota Wild are expected to make their first selection--is talented Russian winger Nikita Scherbak. No, he's not a Minnesotan, a Finn, Swede or Canadian, but there's a lot of intrigue surrounding this kid.
At 6'2" and 174-pounds, Scherbak fits the mold of the kind of larger forward Wild GM Chuck Fletcher and assistant GM Brent Flahr greatly desire. As an 18-year old rookie with the Western Hockey League's Saskatoon Blades, he led his team in scoring with 28 goals and 50 assists for 78 points and a negative-6 rating in the process of leading all WHL rookies in goals, assists and points. In addition, he outscored the next closest Blades teammate, center Nathan Burns, by 35 points.
With guys like Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula and Jason Zucker graduating to the big club or in the process of doing so, Scherbak fills a major void in a prospect pool lacking elite offensive upside on either wing. He isn't just a one dimensional forward, either. Scherbak is strong on the fore check, and would only benefit from watching, practicing and playing with Minnesota assistant captain Zach Parise. He's skilled and speedy, something that becomes quite apparent as he dangles his way through opposing defenses, and isn't afraid to throw his body around to make a play. Also, Scherbak's playmaking skills are highly underrated as he was forced to be "the guy" for Saskatoon with no one there for him to really set up night in and night out.
Finally, for those of you wanting the next Alexander Ovechkin (a right-shot left winger), he's a left-shot playing the right wing, which a person can really appreciate after watching Niederreiter's overtime series-clinching goal against the Colorado Avalanche earlier this spring. I'm pretty sure that "clink" of vulcanized rubber hitting the center post in the back of the net is still ringing in the Pepsi Center.
Scherbak is a few years away from the bright lights of the NHL, but there's a ton of upside with this kid that Fletcher should find tough to pass up on if he's still available at 18th overall. The "Russian Factor" will cause him to drop, no question. However, every year these talented, elite-level Russians fall to teams who aren't afraid to take a flier on guys with through-the-roof ceilings. Maybe it's time Fletcher does the same.