Atlant Mytishchi pursuing Zherdev, or “let the games begin?”
Tuesday June 30th 2009, 8:00 am

KHL team Atlant Mytishchi has let it be known that they’d like to lure Rangers restricted free agent Nikolai Zherdev from North America by publishing a story on their web site in which they make their interest in the 24-year old clear, while admitting they haven’t talked to him and that the likelihood of the forward abandoning the NHL is low.

Atlant assistant coach Ravil Iskhakov, who coached Zherdev as a junior with both Elemash Elektrostal and Russia’s U18 team at the 2002 World Championship, had the following to say about the dynamic (if inconsistent) winger and his contract status with the Rangers:

The Rangers know about Zherdev’s possible departure for the KHL.  The management of the American club recently made a qualifying contract offer to the player, who’s NHL contract has ended this year, in the amount of $3.25 million for the season.  However, the player and his agent have not yet accepted it…

While the contract war goes on, it’s not ruled out that Zherdev, as he did three years ago, will start preparing for the season in the Moscow area club based in Mytishchi.

Back in 2006, when contract negotiations with the Columbus Blue Jackets went sour, Zherdev trained with and ultimately played eight regular season games for Iskhakov’s team, which was then known as Khimik Mytishchi.  Iskhakov suggests a return could be in the cards should the situation repeat itself this summer:

In the summer of 2006 Nikolai became a full player of the Moscow area team, which was then still known as Khmik, and even began the Russian season with Mytishchi, playing for our club for a whole three months.  It’s not ruled out that, three years later, the situation will repeat.  During my visit to New York last winter I met more than once with Nikolai and we touched upon this topic.  Now I haven’t yet spoken with Zherdev, but if the situation with signing a new contract overseas gets dragged out, I think that such a version of events would suit both the player and our club.

Iskhakov goes on to catalog the reasons why it would be a good fit: Zherdev is already familiar with him and Atlant’s infrastructure; his good friend and former linemate Sergei Mozyakin plays for Atlant; the team’s proximity to Moscow, and the fact Zherdev grew up playing in the Moscow area with Elektrostal.  Not willing to get too carried away with himself, Iskhakov admitted that Zherdev is a “highly demanded” player who will “most likely” remain in the NHL, but added that even to have such a player train with the team’s young players this summer would be a significant benefit for the club.

Atlant’s head coach, Fedor Kanareikin, was diplomatic when asked about Iskhakov’s comments:

I’m sure that the arrival to Myischi of such a player as Nikolai Zherdev would only be to the advantage of our club.  I would not object at all to Zherdev training with our team, and especially not against his possible appearance in the ranks of our team.  However, we need to be realists. After all, it is most likely that Nikolai will try to sign a contract overseas, in the NHL.  But if suddenly his plans change, and he finds himself with Atlant, we’d be very happy if this happens.

Chances are, this is just a team taking a shot in the dark, expressing their interest via the press and hoping to take advantage of an opportunity should contract negotiations between Rangers GM Glen Sather and Zherdev’s agent break down.  But with the NHL’s silly season about to begin, who’s to say this wasn’t the opening salvo fired by Zherdev’s camp, the first bargaining chip laid on the table by a crafty agent?  A mere suggestion planted with a team’s assistant coach that was sure to grow into a larger story and ultimately cross the ocean, where the message becomes: There’s no rush for my client to sign your low-ball offer, he’s got a perfectly acceptable situation waiting for him close to home.

Only time will tell whether it was simply an attempt to catch the attention of a potential free agent or an example of an agent negotiating through the press.  But something tells me Rangers fans shouldn’t expect Zherdev’s contract status to be resolved quickly.

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