Nikita Scherbak is still just 22 years old and certainly has some offensive upside but he’s on the outside looking in at a lineup spot and that doesn’t appear like it’s going to change anytime soon.
At the moment, Scherbak sits 14th on Montreal’s forward depth chart, just behind Tomas Plekanec, the other healthy scratch. However, with Jacob de la Rose set to return soon, the Russian is probably going to get knocked down a peg. It’s also possible that Nicolas Deslauriers (who is also now skating) could be viewed as ahead of Scherbak based on their usage last season. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t put Deslauriers ahead of him but that’s just me.
At the very least, the pending activation of de la Rose is going to force Montreal’s hand in the immediate future. They’re already at 23 on the active roster so when the Swedish centre gets the green light from doctors, someone has to go. That decision probably isn’t going to be an easy one.
While it’s possible that the team could waive Karl Alzner knowing that he’d clear, that would leave them with 15 forwards and six defencemen. That can work for a day or two but that’s not a workable scenario long-term. In terms of forwards, only Jesperi Kotkaniemi is waiver-exempt and while I’m still in favour of him playing at the end of the year over the beginning when the roster restrictions are gone, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen either, even if that would solve the problem for now.
So, who should go? Some would argue de la Rose wouldn’t be a big loss but they just committed a two-year deal to him and he’s only seven months older than Scherbak. I don’t think he has a lot of upside left but he’s a serviceable NHL player and would easily get snatched off of waivers so it’s probably not going to be him leaving either.
The challenge for Montreal here is that Scherbak would also probably be grabbed. This isn’t the same situation as Daniel Carr or Sven Andrighetto, players who have thrived at the AHL level but have been snuck through waivers throughout the season in recent years. Scherbak’s younger and has first-round pedigree (not to mention good size and the ability to play both wings). While a lot of teams are right at the maximum roster size at the moment, someone will make the room to take a chance.
There’s a case to be made that Plekanec is already an extraneous piece given his current place on the depth chart but he’ll be needed at some point when injuries strike or the penalty kill starts to struggle. On top of that, the optics of dealing him so quickly after bringing him back (and without giving him his 1,000th game in a Montreal uniform) certainly wouldn’t be pretty. Unfortunately, there’s no such injury as old-age-itis that the Habs could use here either.
Matthew Peca has spent most of his career in the AHL but the Habs made a substantial commitment to him and while he has been shaky in the first couple of games, the fact he’s still ahead of Plekanec on the depth chart means they have plans for him. Given the number of teams that expressed interest in free agency as well, he’s probably not getting through unclaimed either.
To be honest, I’m not sure there’s a player on Montreal’s active roster up front that would pass through waivers unclaimed right now. That’s nice from a depth standpoint but it’s certainly going to complicate things, especially given the limited window they’re going to have to work with to make room. They could maybe delay de la Rose’s activation a few more days/practices but that’s about it.
A conditioning stint could be an option at some point just to get Scherbak some playing time but a player on one of those actually remains on the NHL roster so that wouldn’t solve this particular issue. In the case of de la Rose (and in the near future, Deslauriers), they don’t qualify for the ‘Bona Fide Long-Term Injury/Illness Exception Conditioning Loan’ as they haven’t been on LTIR.
When it comes to Scherbak, the Habs are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He’s too intriguing of a prospect to give away for nothing. However, he doesn’t appear to be good enough to play at the moment based on the current depth chart either which makes him the odd man out. This is Jarred Tinordi all over again although this time, there’s isn’t an all-star minor league enforcer to trade for.
On top of that, teams keeping tabs on injury situations are more than aware of the crunch that’s coming and aren’t going to be offering all that much of value to relieve Montreal of Scherbak’s services. Forget a first rounder or even a second rounder. Even a third at this point seems iffy.
With that in mind, would the Habs be better off by doing what they did twice last week and make a trade for someone that just cleared waivers? Yes, that would be declaring Scherbak as more of a fringe prospect but given his current situation, it’d be awfully difficult for GM Marc Bergevin to argue otherwise. Would a still-young player that just cleared waivers be more valuable than a mid-round pick?
Let’s face it, neither of these are particularly appealing alternatives. However, this is the downside of having surplus NHL-quality depth and relatively good health (and yes, I appreciate the irony of that statement considering how many Habs are currently on IR). Unfortunately for Montreal, unless something changes within the next few days, they’re going to be faced with having to sell low on one of their players. Based on his spot on the depth chart and previous usage, it seems like Scherbak will be the one it happens to.