It didn’t take Russian forward Nikita Scherbak long to win over the Montreal media.
“Oh my God, a lot of people,” a nervous Scherbak said as he approached a phalanx of media backstage at Wells Fargo Center after going 26th overall to the Canadiens in the first round of the NHL draft Friday. “Oh my God.”
Within five minutes, the Saskatoon Blades winger was over his nerves and had English, French and Russian reporters eating out of his hand.
What do you know about Montreal, he was asked. “Merci, bonjour,” he offered.
And what about the Habs? “I know Montreal wins a lot of Stanley Cups.”
Asked how much he weighed, Scherbak said he was 190 pounds. “But I haven’t eaten for two days, I’m so nervous,” he said to laughter. “I’m sitting eating my fingers.”
The Russian, either six foot or 6-2 depending on who you believe, scored 28 goals and added 50 assists in his first year with the Blades to lead all WHL rookies. He also was named the Blades’ most valuable player and rookie of the year.
“I think I’m a good playmaker,” he said.
Habs GM Marc Bergevin marvelled at the Russian’s poise.
“I saw somebody with a lot of personality. He’s got an appeal to him. He’s got confidence. Montreal’s a different market and from what we’ve seen so far we feel he could handle that.”
The Canadiens also have players who can mentor the young Russian in Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov and Alex Galchenyuk.
Asked how close Scherbak is to making the NHL, Bergevin gave the stock answer.
“That’s going to be up to him,” he said.
As for his playing skills, Bergevin pointed to his speed, skating, vision and playmaking ability.
“For us, he’s a top talent,” he said. “For whatever reason he was at 26 so we jumped on him.”
The GM acknowledged that he would have looked to move down the draft had the Russian been picked earlier.
Scherbak said he came to Canada because he wanted to fulfil his dream and that of his family to play in the NHL. “I don’t think about the KHL,” he added.
The language barrier wasn’t easy. At first, he said all he could do was “just show.”
Then he learned “easy words like cat, dog, like food, eat, sleep.”
A year on, he can chat away.
“That’s pretty good,” said one reporter.
“I think so too,” smiled Scherbak.
“Maybe I learn French right now,” he added.
Reporters suddenly felt old when, asked who he looked up to in the NHL, Scherbak cited 21-year-old Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Earlier in the day, Montreal coach Michel Therrien acknowledged he has replayed the Eastern Conference final loss in his head.
“Of course,” he said at the draft. “if you look at the big picture, yes we’re happy about the progress we made. But at the same time, when you’re two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup final, yes you’ve got to be disappointed.”
The Canadiens have already made some decisions. Bergevin says free agents Thomas Vanek, defenceman Douglas Murray and tough guy George Parros won’t be back.
Talks continue with three other free agents: captain Brian Gionta, and defencemen Mike Weaver and Francis Bouillon.
Markov and Therrien have both signed new deals.
“That’s good news for us,” Therrien said of Markov staying in the fold. “He’s an important player, he’s a veteran. He’s got such an important role, so we’re all pleased he’s back with us.”
Therrien agreed to a four-year contract extension earlier this month.
The 50-year-old is in his second stint at the Habs’ helm. His record over the last two seasons is 75-42-13.
Finding an assistant coach to replace Gerard Gallant, now head coach of the Florida Panthers, is also on the Habs’ to-do list.
Defenceman P.K. Subban’s contract is also a major issue. Bergevin says there has already been a meeting with Subban’s agent.
Asked about young goalie Dustin Tokarski’s immediate future, Therrien said simply: “We’ll see at the (training) camp.”
Tokarski acquitted himself well in filling in for the injured Carey Price against the Rangers. Therrien made a point of praising backup Peter Budaj, who was ignored in favour of Tokarski.
“Peter is one of the best backups in the NHL. So I have a lot of respect for Peter Budaj.”