Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Don't got much, throw away what you got

The NY Rangers, to nobody's surprise, declined to offer Nik Zherdev the one-year/3.9M contract awarded to him by an arbitrator over the weekend, making him a 24-year old Unrestricted Free Agent. Zherdev had a fairly strong start to the season playing on an offensively challenged, to say the least, Ranger team before Tom Renney was ultimately fired and replaced with John Tortorella, who could not be more opposite from Renney in terms of coaching strategy, style, and demeanor. Whereas Renney utilized a passive, defensive, everybody-skating-back-to-the puck system, Tortorella employs a far more aggressive, attacking, go-get-the-puck approach. He's also a world class bully and, from all appearances, a huge asshole. I think they are both pretty good NHL coaches.

Not surprisingly, Zherdev quickly fell out of favor with his new coach. Not surprising not because there were an obvious personality conflict, but rather because Zherdev is not an aggressive puck pursuer; he generally likes to hang back and let the puck and/or play come to him (which I'd argue is a a fairly sensible approach given his specific skill set and the size of the ice surface he grew up playing the game on). I don't think Zherdev is particularly lazy, I think this is just how he knows how to play. Long story short, Zherdev's ice time, linemates, and scoring decreased towards the end of the season before ultimately falling off a cliff in the postseason. No points in 7 playoff games probably sealed his fate in New York.

The Rangers probably qualified him knowing that he would receive in arbitration more than they were willing to pay him, and that they could try to trade him for a pick rather than not qualify him and lose him for nothing. It seems they were not able to get anything for him, and Zherdev is now free to sell his services on what's left of the open market. Now, I'm not a huge Zherdev fan or supporter by any means (he's certainly, for reasons that I expect are largely unfair, the black sheep of the Russian Federation), but given the context of the team he was on last season, and specifically its offensive shortcomings, Zherdev's production last year was impressive. Ranger fans and media have been quick to discount his offensive output. They love to call him "enigmatic," which is just hockey speak for "a Russian not named Alexander Ovechkin." But Zherdev was by far the most productive even-strength scorer for the Rangers last season. This was on a team that had three other forwards who made more money last season - and with a greater cap hit - than Zherdev would have received this season had the Rangers agreed to the arbitration award. In fact, the difference between Zherdev and the Rangers' second most productive even-strength scorer was the largest such difference on any team in the league. By miles.

Ranger fans can criticize Zherdev all they want and crucify him as he leaves town, but it's downright scary to think of just how offensively anemic that team would have been without him. It was a struggle for the Rangers to score goals last year, but I'm not sure how, short of a Bure-eque solo-performance from Gaborik, it's going to be any easier this year.

Note: there are some awesome names on that list. Depending on where you make the games played or EV TOI cutoff, the chart could be slightly different, but I wanted to get Stortini on there for obvious reasons so I used a GP cutoff of 41.