PHILADELPHIA – Nikita Scherbak made a major life change a year ago when he left Moscow for Saskatoon, and he’s about to experience an even bigger one after becoming the Canadiens’ first round pick in 2014.
“This is crazy. I’m so nervous,” admitted the 18-year-old Scherbak just moments after hearing Canadiens’ director of amateur scouting Trevor Timmins call his name at Wells Fargo Center. “It’s just positive emotions for me and for my family. Montreal has great fans. It’s a great club with great history. I’m in Saskatoon and I watch NHL games and my God, Montreal is crazy. It’s unbelievable.”
Ranked 15th among all North American skaters by NHL central scouting prior to the draft, the standout winger is coming off an incredible debut campaign in the WHL, having earned team Rookie of the Year and MVP honors after posting 50 assists and 75 points in 68 games with the Saskatoon Blades.
“He’s fast, he’s talented, he has a good stride, good vision and he’s a good playmaker. For some reason, he was still available at No. 26 and we jumped on the opportunity,” explained Habs GM Marc Bergevin, who was working the phones and the draft floor throughout the first round looking for potential trading partners in case one of the first 25 teams to step up to the podium snapped up the Russian winger first.
“He’s a guy with a big personality and confidence. Montreal is a different market and from what we’ve seen from him so far, we get the impression he’ll be able to handle that,” added Bergevin. “We also have a good group of Russian players who can help him out in Alexei Emelin and Andrei Markov. We know he’ll be surrounded by good people.”
Watching the 18-year-old forward hold court with the Montreal media minutes after pulling on a Habs sweater for the first time on Friday, it’s hard to believe that just one year ago he was still living in his native Russia, unable to form even basic sentences in English. Based on his on-ice results and ability to work a crowd in two different languages, it seems Scherbak managed to expedite his North American learning curve.
“It was hard for me when I came to Canada because I didn’t speak English – just easy words like cat, dog, eat, sleep,” he admitted with a grin. “The first month I was here I couldn’t speak with the guys in the locker room. I would just show them but I couldn’t understand anyone. It was a hard first month or two. I tried talking in the locker room and the guys helped me a lot with my English. Maybe now I can do the same with French.”
Prospects arriving at the NHL Entry Draft carrying a Russian passport have a tendency to spook some general managers, but Bergevin isn’t worried about eventually seeing his first round pick bolt for the KHL.
“He has a desire to play in the NHL. You see that by him choosing to come over to play in the WHL in Saskatoon in North America. He could have stayed in Russia and been more comfortable there,” mentioned Bergevin of Scherbak’s move to the Prairies. “His dream is to play in the NHL. There’s always a risk, but I met with him yesterday and so did Trevor. His charm and personality are both positives.”
Sherbak hit his stride almost immediately in Saskatoon, and if the shifty winger wants to start acclimating to another new hockey home in the near future, he’ll have an opportunity to put the wheels in motion in Brossard this July.
“He’ll take part in our development camp next week, then he’ll be at training camp and then we’ll see. That will be up to him,” stressed Bergevin. “For now, we’re leaving him in the hands of [director of player development] Martin Lapointe and [player development coach] Patrice Brisebois and they’ll make sure he’s on the right track. He has a good frame but he can still put a little more meat on there.”
While he’s officially listed as 6-foot 2, 174 pounds after missing the NHL Scouting Combine due to administrative issues, the affable winger insists the bulking up process has already begun.
“I’m 6-foot-2, 190 [pounds] now, but I haven’t eaten in two days. I’m so nervous,” he joked. “I’ve just been eating my fingers!”
Still in awe of his life-changing evening in Philadelphia, it may take a while for Scherbak to come down from his Draft Day high. Already trending on Twitter across Canada within minutes of making his first TV appearance as a member of the Canadiens, he’s about to learn what life as a Hab is really like.
Good thing he’s always been a quick study.
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.
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