Trust, injuries played a role in Zherdev’s failure and Leino’s success

The signing of Nikolay Zherdev in the summer appeared to be one of the better moves Holmgren made in the summer. It seemed like the classic case of a low risk/high reward situation. Zherdev, a former fourth overall pick, is a highly skilled forward that had the potential to be a 60 point forward that chips in with around 25 goals a season. He was signed to a reasonable one year deal worth $2 million. The work ethic issues that has followed Zherdev everywhere he has gone was the reason the Flyers were able to sign him for to such a reasonable deal, but at one year it was a worthwhile risk. If he didn’t work out they could just let him walk in the summer with no further obligation.

There was no real expectation that Zherdev would have turned into a long-term success for the Flyers — especially considering there would be no cap room to sign him to a long term deal. However, the Zherdev experiment was a failure and ended much sooner than most probably expected when the Flyers gave up first and third round picks for forward Kris Versteeg. He was waived yesterday after playing in only 47 of the Flyers 60 games. He was a healthy scratch for 13 game.

There has been much debate as to who deserves the blame for this failed experiment. Many fans have been exasperated by Laviolette’s refusal to play a forward who scored 15 goals with limited ice time over the likes of Jody Shelley and Dan Carcillo who have fewer points combined (10) than Zherdev has goals (15). Others feel like the blame solely lies on Zherdev, who is well known for his tendency to float in the defensive zone and sports a questionable work ethic in general.

It certainly isn’t unreasonable to place much of the blame squarely on Zherdev’s shoulders but, as with most things in life, I have to wonder if the truth is somewhere in between. Zherdev is well known for his issues and should not be absolved from his part in this but he has always been a productive forward at the NHL level. From an outsider’s perspective it’s hard to see why this signing ended as poorly as it did.

Peter Laviolette, in my opinion, is one of the better coaches in the National Hockey League but one has to wonder if he could have handled this situation better than he did. As great as he is, Laviolette seems to be completely stubborn at times. If he doesn’t care for a player it seems like he may be unwilling to put said player in a position to succeed.

Case in point is Ville Leino. Leino is a part of the one line Laviolette consistently relies on while juggling the others but it wasn’t always this way. At this point last year Leino found himself in a situation that wasn’t entirely dissimilar to Zherdev’s. Like Zherdev, Leino seemed to have a tough time earning the coach’s trust to earn a regular spot in the lineup and to be given the minutes needed for a skilled forward to produce.

Ville Leino was traded to the Flyers on February 6 of last year after struggling to produce in Detroit. Laviolette didn’t seem to be excited about the acquisition and Leino did see any game action as a Flyer until March 3. He scored a goal and was a +2 in a 7-4 loss in his Flyers debut which earned himself another game. After that game, Laviolette proceeded to scratch him for the next three. He got another shot to play on March 13, but once again found himself a healthy scratch for the next two. He got back in the lineup on March 18 and 20 for two more games before being a scratch yet again. He earned a regular spot in the lineup for the next 8 games when Carter was out with a broken foot, but was scratched again for the final two when Carter returned. When he did play, he wasn’t given many minutes. He averaged 12:39 minutes of ice time which isn’t that different than the average of 12:28 that Zherdev has received.

Leino was also scratched for the first four games of the playoffs before finally getting a chance when both Carter and Gagne were lost to injury. Leino went on to to produce at over a point per game clip (21 points in 19 games) and his line was the most productive in the playoffs. Since then, Leino has been a regular in the Flyers lineup and has become a favorite a among the fans.

While everything has worked out nicely, one has to wonder what would have happened if Leino never received a chance to due the injuries of Gagne and Carter. Would Leino even be a Flyer today? Would he had been considered a lock for the lineup if it wasn’t for the fantastic performance in the playoffs? For me Leino is one of the most valuable assets this season due to the fact that he is a top six talent on an entry level contract. I have to wonder how different the offseason would have gone if Leino wasn’t relied on to be a regular in the lineup. It’s doubtful they would be the same team today.

The Zherdev situation isn’t identical because he came in here with a history of problems which no doubt made it even harder for the coach to give him a fair shake but the Leino situation has to give one pause. Could the Zherdev experiment ended up differently if he was given more of a chance and placed in a position to succeed? I think Zherdev deserves his share of the blame but looking at what happened with Leino I have to think Laviolette didn’t handle Zherdev as well as he could have.