Being a devoted Rangers fan has allowed me to witness numerous players come and go over the years, a topic I’ve explored in the Forgotten Rangers series. Some players naturally stand out and leave an indelible mark in my memory, such as Ryan McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello, Martin St. Louis, Henrik Lundqvist, just to name a few. These individuals had significant tenures with the Blueshirts and their performances are remembered fondly.
Conversely, there are those who quickly fade into obscurity, but there’s one player who remains a prominent name in my memories. This player, at one point, led the Rangers in scoring, only to be abruptly removed from the roster nearly a year after joining – Nik Zherdev.
Before donning the Rangers’ jersey, Zherdev was drafted fourth overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Possessing remarkable speed and exceptional hand skills, Zherdev seemed destined for superstardom. His on-ice prowess was undeniable.
During the 2003 season of the now-defunct Russian Superleague, a precursor to the KHL, Zherdev departed for the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he played 57 games, tallying 13 goals and 21 assists. After the 2004 lockout, he played 73 games for Columbus, amassing 54 points. However, the 2006-2007 season didn’t go as planned for Zherdev, with just ten goals in 72 games and a dismal plus/minus rating of -19.
In 2007, after tense contract negotiations, a three-year deal was reached, which almost instantaneously paid off for Columbus. That season, Zherdev notched 61 points in 82 games, although the Blue Jackets missed the playoffs.
Shortly thereafter, on July 2, 2008, Zherdev was traded to the New York Rangers, alongside Dan Fritsche, in exchange for Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman. In his debut season with the Rangers, Zherdev shared the team’s points lead with Scott Gomez, accumulating 58 points.
Zherdev had his fair share of memorable moments with the Rangers, including shootout goals, unconventional angle goals, and a late-game tying goal against Pittsburgh, which the Rangers ultimately won in a shootout.
Seems like a success story, right?
As a restricted free agent, the Rangers tendered a qualifying offer of $3.25 million to retain Zherdev’s rights before the 2009 free agency period. Subsequently, Zherdev was awarded $3.9 million in arbitration. However, the Rangers chose not to retain him.
After a brief stint with the Philadelphia Flyers, Zherdev moved to the KHL and essentially disappeared from the hockey scene. But why? How could such a talented player struggle to find his footing in the fast-paced, skill-driven environment of the NHL?
One of the primary criticisms against Zherdev, despite his exceptional skill and talent, was his attitude, which led to inconsistencies in his performance. Both Columbus and New York’s management and coaching staffs faced issues concerning his effort and attitude. Notably, after a subpar season in Columbus, Ken Hitchcock, the Jackets’ coach at the time, and GM Scott Howson held a meeting with Zherdev to address these concerns.
His lackluster effort and erratic play continued during his time with the Rangers. Despite his first-line potential, Zherdev frequently disappeared for extended periods, at times appearing as if he weren’t even on the ice. Rangers management and their newly appointed coach, John Tortorella, couldn’t ignore this issue.
Zherdev failed to make an impact during the Rangers’ first-round exit against the Washington Capitals. All of these factors led to the Rangers severing ties with him, as they believed the money awarded to him in arbitration could be better spent elsewhere.
Zherdev, 24, rejected the Rangers’ $3.25 million qualifying offer in June and was seeking a deal in the neighborhood of $4.5 million. The Rangers refused to up their offer by a single penny. “It’s not a surprise,” Zherdev’s agent, Rolland Hedges, said by telephone from Ottawa Tuesday. “In all fairness, we asked the Rangers after the qualifying offer if they were prepared to negotiate. And they said no. Glen (Sather) stayed true to his word. “With the additions we’ve been able to make this summer, we feel we’ve been able to add scoring and offense from the wing position,” Sather said in a statement. “We feel it is in our best interest to walk away and continue to explore all available options to improve our roster.”
Zherdev scored 23 goals and 58 points in his lone season in a Blueshirt, during which he was known to disappear at times – witness his zero-point performance in the playoffs – and never struck a connection with new coach John Tortorella. Hedges repeated Tuesday that “it is (Zherdev’s) No. 1 priority to play in the NHL,” but a move to Russia‘s KHL is a distinct possibility.
As a younger fan at the time, I didn’t agree with the decision. I acknowledged Zherdev’s unpredictability, but with the Rangers transitioning under a new coach after Tom Renney’s departure, I thought retaining a capable scorer would be beneficial. However, the Rangers had their reasons, and it’s obvious they know more than a dorky kid from New Jersey. This story emphasizes that even with immense talent, one must commit to performing at a professional level consistently; otherwise, their career may be short-lived.
Nik Zherdev was undoubtedly a talented hockey player, but ultimately, his failure to consistently put in the required effort led to his downfall. It’s disheartening to witness such a highly skilled individual fade into obscurity. Perhaps, with more dedication, the Rangers could have retained him, fulfilling a long-standing need for the team.
Nevertheless, in the world of Rangers hockey, we can endlessly speculate about “what ifs.” However, it doesn’t change the outcome. All we have are memories of his brief time with the team.