Believe it or not, Vladimir Zharkov is still technically in the Devils' system. While he signed a two-year deal with CSKA Moscow in this past summer, the New Jersey Devils did tender him a qualifying offer so they still have his NHL rights. Believe it or not, Vladimir Zharkov is actually under the age of 25. It doesn't seem like he's that old, given his relatively short amount of time in the NHL. He's actually the oldest player on our list. Believe it or not, when Zharkov was called up in 2009-10 and 2010-11, he played pretty well for his role. There was reason to believe he is a capable fourth liner. Yet, he did not make the team in subsequent seasons. He did not stick around while other players were signed to fill the fourth line. Believe it or not, Zharkov ended up at #9 on our Top 25 Devils Under 25 List. Allow me to explain.
#9 - Vladimir Zharkov - LW/RW - Height: 6'1" - Weight: 201 lbs. - Age: 24 - 2012-13 Team: CSKA Moscow (KHL)
The main advantage Zharkov has is 82 NHL appearances. As much as we have hope for other players in the system to "make it," Zharkov actually succeeded. The harsh reality is that someone like Mike Hoeffel or David Wohlberg or even every other prospect may not get to the highest level of play. Some will be held back by timing and never get an opportunity. Some will get a short window of opportunity but miss out due to some bad luck or bad play. Some will just never develop into NHL players. Zharkov is, in my mind, a NHL-caliber player.
Let me be clear, he wasn't a great player. His size was OK. He was a pretty quick winger and he demonstrated an understanding of playing both ways. He also played with discipline, as shown by his low amount of PIM. He was limited to only bottom-six minutes, usually on the fourth line. He was employed against weak competition when he was used regularly. His shot was pretty bad. It's arguable he's better than a 2.1% shooter, but two goals out of 94 shots strongly suggests he wasn't ever going to be a scorer. It's not like he tore up the minors either. He was hot in 2009-10 prior to his call up; but his 2011-12 season wasn't impressive. Sure, Zharkov's 39 points was good for third on the team; but that belies the lack of offense on that Albany team - Joe Whitney led the team with 45. It isn't that big of an accomplishment.
That all said, Zharkov absolutely proved he belonged on a fourth line in both 2009-10 and 2010-11. The evidence lies in his on-ice Corsi rate; the rate of shooting attempts by New Jersey minus shooting attempts against New Jersey when he was on the ice. In 2009-10, according to Behind the Net, Zharkov had the best rate on the entire team. Yes, even higher than Zach Parise, who played his best season of hockey. I filtered out players who played less than 20 games since a small amount of games can lead to an abnormally high or low rate. Zharkov finishing with that rate after 40 games suggests there's talent there. In 2010-11, again according to Behind the Net, Zharkov wasn't as great but he still finished with a positive rate - the ninth highest on the team. That's further evidence that when Zharkov was on the ice, the play was heading in the Devils' direction. The big caveat to those values is that Zharkov played limited minutes (his time on ice per 60 rate was around ten) and he played against weak competition. He was, for all intents and purposes, a fourth liner.
Isn't that what you want from such a player? Someone who can keep the play going forward against weak guys while the other forwards get a rest. That's something Zharkov did that several other Devils fourth liners couldn't do. Within the last three seasons among players who played at least 20 regular season games (sorry, Stephen Gionta), we witnessed Andrew Peters, Ilkka Pikkarainen, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, Rod Pelley, Adam Mair, Tim Sestito, David Steckel, Matt Halischuk, Eric Boulton, Ryan Carter, and Cam Janssen get pounded in possession when they were on the ice when they got limited minutes. Yet, they and their ilk stick around while Zharkov's frozen out. So Zharkov didn't turn all of that to points. But no one on that list has ever been very productive - and most never will be productive players. In fact, some of the players on that list shouldn't be in the NHL because they're just straight up awful players. He may not be a fighter or a banger or a guy who got hot in the playoffs, but the fact he did and could drive the play forward against weak competition makes him more of a useful player than those guys on that list. It's mind boggling to me that Jacques Lemaire understood this (it's no accident Zharkov appeared in 2010-11 when Lemaire took over), but the Devils management hasn't. I wonder if other teams would have.
He saw the writing on the wall in 2011-12 when he spent nearly all of his time in Albany. He got four appearances, but with an average ice time of 4:52 in those games, it's clear he wasn't given a fair chance. Players like Janssen, Boulton, et. al., all got shots, more games, and more contracts in New Jersey (and elsewhere in the league) and will continue to do so (e.g. Krys Barch). Therefore, I sympathize with Zharkov's decision to sign with CSKA Moscow this summer. Some will think I'm making too much out of this, but given that the Devils have signed and used some really bad players on the fourth line, it's really strange that someone capable is being allowed move on. OK, so he wasn't ever going to score a lot - he doesn't have to! If he can play well for 8-10 minutes and generate a little offense, then he's done his job.
As a result of having experience and demonstrating what he can do at the top level, many of us ranked him ahead of most other prospects. We kept him around the top ten and he ultimately got in at #9 due to a mixture of opinions on other players. In a way, it makes sense. The player with 82 games of NHL experience should be further than most players who aren't even pros or just entered them. Experience counts for a lot. Kevin ranked him the lowest, but his reason is pretty sobering. While he recognized what he's done like the rest of us, the reality is that since he signed in the KHL, it's not likely he'll return. Therefore, there's no reason to put him ahead of players who could be, will be, or already are Devils. Kevin's right. For the purposes of this list, this is Zharkov's only appearance as he's 24. For the team as a whole, Zharkov is essentially done here. If he doesn't do well in the KHL, then there's no reason to hope he comes back. If he does well with CSKA Moscow, then he would have to have a big reason leave a spot where he's successful to go back to an organization that didn't fully appreciate what he did from 2009-2011.
In the big picture, missing out on a fourth liner isn't that big of a deal. But in today's NHL, a team needs four lines of quality and so spending money and roster spots on terrible players is ill-advised. Keeping and playing Zharkov could have addressed both. Now, believe it or not, we have to wait to see whether someone from the system can become a decent fourth line player at a minimum.
That's how Zharkov ended up at #9 on our ranking. We'd like your opinion about Zharkov and our ranking. Do you think #9 is too high, too low, or just about right for Zharkov? What did you think of the player when he was in New Jersey? Why did Lemaire give him a shot whereas Peter DeBoer and John MacLean didn't? Do you think the Devils need help for their fourth line? Wouldn't Zharkov fill that need? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Vladimir Zharkov in the comments. Thank you for reading.