Michael Arace commentary: Shifting Zherdev to center could work
Friday, September 14, 2007 3:37 AM
By Michael Arace
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
The Blue Jackets trumpeted the opening of training camp by trotting out players at a media luncheon yesterday in Nationwide Arena. Most of the TV reporters and their minicams left the building before they could get to the buffet, a development that led to rumors that a huge story was breaking, like maybe there was a weather pattern forming over Indiana. We don't tend to miss lunch. Was there rain on the way?
No, the minicams had to shuffle across town to catch Jim Tressel, who promised a few words before he boarded his Buckeyes for Seattle. So it was a relatively sparse gathering in the Founder's Club for the Jackets' camp-opening news conference. General manager Scott Howson and coach Ken Hitchcock stepped up on the dais, and Hitch dropped a bomb.
Asked about Nikolai Zherdev, the team's enigmatic and talented right winger, Hitchcock said, "I must tell you right now that I see a different person. From the player I was around last season, he's a different person. We'll see how that translates out on the ice."
Then came the bomb.
"He's going to play center ice," Hitchcock said. "We're going to experiment with a line that no one has seen before, for the first week, 10 days of camp. … We're going try him on a line with (Rick) Nash and (David) Vyborny."
Whoa. They're going to take Zherdev -- who has had his character assassinated by previous management, who has drawn the wrath of every coach he has ever had, who has been criticized by fans, media and, in whispers, by teammates -- and they're going to take him out of position and put him between the two best wingers on the team?
Has Doug MacLean reassumed power?
Actually, there is some serious thinking that went into this.
First, Hitchcock said, Zherdev is a better defensive forward than one might think.
"The thing that Nick did that I find unique for a skilled player is, from the red line back, he was tremendous," Hitchcock said. "He gets back, he reads the play, he gets the puck and he can lug it through the middle. Where he wasn't good enough for me is from the red line in."
After poring over Zherdev tape this summer, the thought occurred to Hitchcock: Why relegate Zherdev to the wall as a winger and restrict his space? Howson had the same thought. Why not try Zherdev at center? Give him the middle, where he's comfortable. It seems he can handle the defensive responsibilities of the position.
"As I watched him on tape, one thing that stood out was, he had the puck in the middle a lot," Howson said. "The other thing was, when he didn't have the puck, he wanted it back. Typically, centers like the puck in the neutral zone, and once they get over the blue line, they're willing to share it."
It might work. Three highly skilled players, Hitchcock said, tend to have an innate ability to read off one another. This particular combination has been tried, but not with Zherdev in the middle. Who'll take the faceoffs? They'll take turns.
Zherdev, initially flummoxed by the notion, came to embrace the challenge, Howson said. Allegedly, Zherdev is in terrific shape and excited about playing, and never before has he been accused of such things.
Keep this straight: Nash-Zherdev-Vyborny is just an experiment. If it works, it's genius. If it doesn't, well, at least Zherdev had something to get his motor started in training camp.
Wherever Zherdev winds up playing, the Blue Jackets are going to need him. They're going to need his scoring. They're going to need his head and his heart fully engaged. They want him to know it, and they've given him this carrot -- to tear after as hard as he can.