2017 Top 30 Habs Prospects: #3 Nikita Scherbak

There might not be a more dynamic offensive player in the prospect pool than Nikita Scherbak. | Photo: Colin Peddle, St. John’s IceCaps

Few prospects have captivated me like Scherbak. He’s a dynamic force with endless creativity and size, but after “tantalizing” the next word that comes to mind is “frustrating.”

These “two Scherbaks” are often visible in the same game. One shift, Scherbak will steal the puck and dominate the remainder of his shift in the offensive zone. The next, Scherbak will make a puck decision so perplexing you wonder if it’s actually the same player.

There’s no denying Scherbak’s skill. This a prospect who completes passes that most players would never even think of trying. He’s flashy, dynamic, and shockingly explosive.

So, what has to happen for Scherbak to emerge as a consistent dynamic threat? This article seeks to answer that question by comparing key elements of Scherbak’s game–stickhandling, zone entries, passing/shooting balance, and defensive zone coverage–when he’s “on” to when he’s “off”.

In addition, I ask (and attempt to answer), does it really matter that he’s inconsistent, especially since the results he gets are stellar?

Midseason: #3 | 2016: #2 | 2015: #1 | 2014: #1
Acquired: 2014, 1st round, 26th overall
Position: RW/LW | Shoots: L
Birthdate: 1995-12-30 | Nationality: Russia
Team: St. John’s IceCaps (AHL)
Height: 6’2 (185cm) | Weight: 190 (86kg)


Series Navigation:
Top 30 Prospects: Ranking Methodology – Integrating Statistics into Analysis
Top 30 Prospects: #30 – #26 – Success Rates of Swedish Jr. and USHS Defenders
Top 30 Prospects: #25 – #21 – Success Rates of CHL Overage Forwards
Top 30 Prospects: #20 – #16 – Balancing Players with Opposing Skill Sets and Development
Top 30 Prospects: #15 – #11 – Weighing perceived NHL-readiness with NHL Upside
Top 30 Prospects: #10 Will Bitten – Why His Season Was Better Than You Think
Top 30 Prospects: #9 Victor Mete – How Undersized Defenders Can Excel Defensively
Top 30 Prospects: #8 Josh Brook – Improving Shooting Location Through Movement
Top 30 Prospects: #7 Michael McCarron – Do Big Players Really Take Longer to Develop?
Top 30 Prospects: #6 Charlie Lindgren – The Reverse-VH and When Skill Takes Over
Top 30 Prospects: #5 Charles Hudon – A Case Study on the Impact of Aging for NHL Chances
Top 30 Prospects: #4 Joni Ikonen – Multidimensionality in Attack
Top 30 Prospects: #3 Nikita Scherbak – Comparing Scherbak In and Out of Form
Top 30 Prospects: #2 Noah Juulsen – How to Excel at Defending the Blue Line
Top 30 Prospects: #1 Ryan Poehling – Full Breakdown, Importance of Little Details, and More

Passing/Shooting Balance

Far from a little detail, Scherbak’s passing/shooting decisions are arguably his biggest downfall at this time. It’s not so much that he can’t pass or can’t shoot. The organization’s most skilled passer, and arguably the best playmaker, is also a capable shooter.

There’s no denying that Scherbak is not a dynamic goalscorer. He’s a powerful shooter with above-average accuracy, but lacks the complementary tools like a cunning angle change or ability to shoot pucks off balance or in stride. So, for Scherbak to find twine, he has to improve his shooting location and create space. This is something he does often when in form.

Notice how Scherbak is so aggressive at driving the net and cutting to the slot to improve his shooting location. He shows no hesitation going to the higher-scoring areas, and he has the shooting ability to pot some goals on sniper’s shots.

Now, this raises the question: How can a player be so talented at carrying the puck into dangerous shooting areas, but average only a one goal per every five games and a below-average (of U23 AHL forwards) 1.75 SOG/GP?

This answer lies in his passing/shooting balance.

Scherbak is a highly skilled playmaker with an ability to create passing lanes better than anyone in the organization.

When this goes well, the results are stunning. Scherbak connects with passes few players would even think of. His passing is rapid and precise, and he’s masterful with the tape-to-space pass that can create odd-man situations. Exploiting the smallest of holes and seams, he creates high-danger scoring chances for his teammates with a certain ease.

However, Scherbak relies heavily–often too heavily–on his passing ability. When struggling to make an impact offensively, it’s largely a product of his unwillingness to shoot, even in high-danger areas.

Scherbak will maneuver his way into dangerous scoring areas, but when it comes time to take a shot, he either hesitates for so long the opportunity is lost and/or he passes to a teammate in a lesser position.

This is not a habit that Scherbak will buck entirely. In fact, you don’t want him to entirely change this mentality. Sometimes, these plays are subtle acknowledgements of his weaknesses and turning them into his strength. After all, passing from a position where everyone expects you to shoot has its merits.

However, it’s about finding balance. He accomplished this early in this past AHL season, and picked it up back up down the stretch. The odd overpass is to be expected–creative players try creative plays–but with a shot like Scherbak’s, turning more of those opportunities into chances off his own stick only bodes well for his NHL future.

Stickhandling & Offensive Zone Entries

Even though Scherbak is a gifted puckhandler and skater, balancing uncontrolled and controlled entry attempts didn’t come easy this season.

In the games I tracked, Scherbak was among the team leaders in total entry attempts and controlled entry success rate; however, he only averaged 1.25 controlled attempts per every dump in. This 1.25 CE/UE rate is lower than many IceCaps, including Daniel Audette, Charles Hudon, and even Markus Eisenschmid.

Watching Scherbak closely makes it quite perplexing why he relies a fair bit on uncontrolled entries. He’s smooth and deadly 1v1, and can burn defenders who give him any space over the blue line. But he’s often careless with entry attempts.

Examine the clip below. With two defenders blocking Scherbak’s path, that’s likely a puck that has to get dumped in to drive the play forward; however, both defenders are relatively passive and flatfooted. For this work, Scherbak has to maintain possession until his linemates (Hudon, STJ10 & Terry, STJ 22) are able to cross the line with speed. By hammering the puck in earlier, neither Hudon nor Terry have a chance of winning the footrace since they’re both at the red line when the puck is flung into the zone.

Uncontrolled entries are less than ideal, but often necessary. As a result, it’s important that Scherbak improves at timing them. It’s also important for Scherbak to increase the amount of controlled entries he attempts, or limit his dump ins to only when necessary.

One of the most telling signs about whether Scherbak is “on” or “off” is the way he attacks defenders 1v1. Notice in the below clips how he beats defenders to gain the offensive zone. There’s no fancy toedrag or dangle, it’s controlled and deceptive skating combined while using his reach to put the puck in a place where the defender cannot reach it.

As discussed in the previous section, Scherbak is a deadly playmaker. And it’s not just limited to the offensive zone. He sees opportunities developing well ahead of most, and creates space for his teammates with tape-to-space passes and clever touches to suck in defenders.

Without the Puck & Defensive Zone Play

Scherbak’s without the puck and defensive play really picked up in the second half of this season following a spell of ups and downs. The key for Scherbak has always been keeping his feet moving, which he did quite well.

Scherbak can be a deadly forechecker because once he gets the puck, he instantly looks for a way to turn a failed defensive zone possession into a scoring chance.

Watch how Scherbak engages in the clip below. His forecheck is successful thanks to a quick stick, and then he finds Hudon with a deft tape-to-space pass alone the slot after dragging the defender up high.

Perhaps the mostly commonly discussed issue with Scherbak is his DZ positioning, which in all honesty, isn’t bad. Apart from the odd mistimed zone fly or man lost, it’s generally quite good. Issues occur when Scherbak stops moving his feet and reaches for pucks, which happens far too often for a player with his speed.

Scherbak quite often proactively picks up his initial assignment, as shown below. He recognizes that the centre on the line (Chris Terry) is falling behind the play, so he jumps in and assumes Terry’s backchecking assignment. Scherbak swoops low, closes down on the net like a centre should, and drifts backwards to pick up BNG9. Scherbak’s stops moving his feet as his eyes get glued to the puck, so as it rims around around, he’s too late to pressure BNG9. Couple Scherbak’s slow reaction time with some horrendous coverage by Hudon and Parisi, and that’s a high-danger scoring chance against.

Essentially, he acquires the position needed at first, but once he stops, he’s unable to make himself a factor if a change in position is required.

Wrapping up this section is a quick note on the way Scherbak battles for pucks. He often attacks from the wrong side of the puck. (i.e., “behind” instead of “from underneath” or approaching the shoulder furthest from the puck.) This results in him decreasing his chance to win the puck no matter how strong he is. When he challenges properly, he’s generally quite successful in battles, although he does get overpowered on occasion.

The Results

In form, Scherbak is a power winger with deft puckhandling and top-notch vision. He’s fine defensively and at forechecking when moving his feet, can pots some goals with his powerful shot and aggressive net drives when he wants to shoot, and is extremely effective in transition when making purposeful plays combining his hands and deceptive speed.

Out of form, Scherbak remains dedicated to getting to the slot and the net, but hesitates to shoot. He approaches battles from the wrong side, and stops moving his feet, inhibiting his play away the puck. Finally, he can be careless in transition with dump-ins, indicating that he doesn’t always play to his strengths.

After all this, all I can think is, how much do the out of form times really matter?

At least at the AHL level, I’m not convinced they matter much because of the results. The results are fantastic. Scherbak posted a 9.70% 5v5 GF Rel% this season, and dragged all but three IceCaps to a higher GF% when playing with him than without. 

Scherbak faced the second toughest competition among all IceCaps players according to prospect-stats.com estimates, only making these results more impressive. Even Jacob de la Rose and Stefan Matteau received GF% while with Scherbak, despite them normally being called “the shutdown line.” Meanwhile, Bobby Farnham’s GF% skyrocketed over to 65% and Markus Eisenschmid’s to 100% when with Scherbak, showcasing his effect up and down the lineup.

Not only that, Scherbak recorded a 7.69 CF Rel%, further indicating his ability to drive the play.

All things considered, the Scherbak effect is real and significant, no matter how ineffective he may seem at times.

The Report

He got off to a blazing start with eight goals and 14 points in 15 games, but was scoring on 26% of his shots. After returning from a three-game stint in the NHL, he seemed to lose the fundamentals, and plunged into a 10-game pointless streak. He put on the burners again with 14 points in the following 13 games, and carried consistent production into the playoffs.

Scherbak has the toolkit to be a special player in the NHL. He has that unique ability to carry the puck into high-scoring areas while being seemingly untouched. A high-end, rangy stickhandler best when placing the puck into difficult spots for defenders and using his crossover-heavy stride to blow past the opposition. He couples this with seamless lateral movement integration to move east-west while really going north-south. One of those players who looks faster with the puck than without, as he sets the tempo while in possession. His lumbering-looking stride and intentional speed control disguise his separation gear, which is often just a linear crossover or two away.

A playmaker first-and-foremost, Scherbak finds teammates with relative ease through traffic and in difficult situations. He’s primarily a forehand playmaker, and favours lateral passes after creating space for himself with his hands and skating. He makes skillful passes across the ice, and places the puck into the space quite often to give a teammate an easy lane.

Even with the blazing start, Scherbak’s SOG/GP improved marginally to 1.74, which is far behind the clip of 2.5 SOG/GP that most young AHL scorers pace—playmakers or not. He’s an accurate shooter with a deceptive release point that moves from aiming top corner far side to short side during flexion. He has’ a power element in his game, but it’s inconsistent, and he’s not a goalscorer with traffic around the net.

Undoubtedly, the decision-making with the puck needs improvement. He’s a chronic overpasser, often attempts stationary dekes, will skate himself into traffic with no exit plan, and, despite his high skill level, struggles with receiving pass on the backhand. He makes baffling decisions sometimes, and gets caught puck watching in his own zone after positioning himself.

Scherbak faced the second-toughest competition of any IceCaps forward, and was among the team’s top GF Rel% players. Furthermore, he was the driving corsi force in the games I tracked. The community—including myself—is guilty of giving him a hard time for his frustrating shortcomings based on the eye test. But the reality is that he drives results, perhaps more than any prospect in the organization.

Ranking Explanation: In all honesty, I thought Scherbak was going to be the top ranked prospect on the list. Just to give you an idea of how close it was, the averages of my rankings has top-three (Juulsen, Scherbak, Poehling) within less than one place of each other. Honestly, distinguishing between these three is a futile exercise.

As I mentioned in Victor Mete article (#9), I’m a firm believer if you create a methodology, you stick it out even if some of it makes you uncomfortable.

As a result, this is likely the last ranking methodology that actually says anything of value.

Ranking Scherbak over Ikonen was a product of two things: Proximity to the NHL and skill set.

Even though Scherbak may not be “NHL-ready,” he has carved out a respectable career against men already. He’s already entering the third year of his professional career, but will be among the youngest players reaching that milestone because of his late birthdate. The tiers, in general, are structured by how close they are to the NHL. Scherbak and Ikonen both have to balance their game better, with Scherbak needing more than Ikonen, but Scherbak has already proven he can score against men without striking such balance.

There’s no doubt that Ikonen is a better goalscorer than Scherbak, at least when it comes to their tools. Ikonen is likely stronger in “away from the puck” elements, but the gap isn’t significant as Scherbak has made serious strides in that regard lately. The first major gap is skating. Scherbak has separation speed, and perhaps is explosive, while being an equally gifted lateral skater. Projection-wise, any lingering problems in Scherbak’s skating are strength-related, whereas Ikonen’s are both strength-related and mechanical.

Finally, Scherbak’s playmaking ability is the best dimension that either prospect has. Although, a few iterations of the rankings did have Ikonen over Scherbak, primarily because Ikonen is a more multidimensional offensive threat.

Just like I do with most rankings, I went back and forth on Scherbak versus Ikonen a fair bit, and it could change when I wake up tomorrow.


  1. All the information is “in my opinion.
  2. The ranking likely has limited-to-no value. Think of the ranking as a way to catalogue players, notes, and data in a non-alphabetical way. The information within the profiles is far, far more valuable.
  3. I mentioned I’m not a scout right? If not, I’m not a scout.
  4. I appreciate all questions, comments, and criticism. You can reach me on Twitter (@MitchLBrown) or email (mitchbrown31@gmail.com). You can also tell me I suck. I don’t care.
  5. AHL/CHL/USHL Stats: Prospect-Stats.com | NCAA Stats: CollegeHockeyInc.com | SuperElit Stats: Stats.SweHockey.se | NHL Stats: Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com

The list so far…

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4 Responses to 2017 Top 30 Habs Prospects: #3 Nikita Scherbak

  1. thanks for doing this mitch, i really enjoy your work.

    jgoulding August 18, 2017 at 6:32 am Reply
  2. Where is carr

    Robert August 18, 2017 at 10:20 pm Reply
  3. I believed he’s not there due to the fact that he’s 25 and probably not considering a “real” prospect due to that fact. Most lists of prospects take players under 25.

    Sebastien August 20, 2017 at 11:49 am Reply
  4. I believed he’s not there due to the fact that he’s 25 and probably not considering a “real” prospect due to that. Most lists of prospects take players under 25.

    Sebastien August 20, 2017 at 11:49 am Reply

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