COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Blue Jackets traded enigmatic offensive star Nikolai Zherdev and centre Dan Fritsche to the New York Rangers for defencemen Christian Backman and Fedor Tyutin on Wednesday.
Fritsche was thrilled to find himself going from the only NHL team to never make the playoffs to one that is a perennial power.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Fritsche, 22, who was the first Ohio native to play for the Blue Jackets. “I couldn’t be more excited. I’m going to a Stanley Cup contender with an abundance of talent.”
The Blue Jackets then added a scoring winger later Wednesday, signing forward Kristian Huselius to a four-year deal worth US$19 million. Huselius will see time on one of the top two lines, helping to off-set the scoring lost with Zherdev’s departure.
Zherdev, 23, gives the Rangers one of the NHL’s best one-on-one players, but also a Russian right winger who has frequently fallen into disfavour with management and teammates. He had a career-high 61 points last season with 26 goals and 35 assists, second on the Columbus team to captain Rick Nash.
“He’s got upside written all over him,” Rangers general manager Glen Sather said. “We are trying to get younger, we are trying to get more talented and we’re trying to get faster. If you look around the league today, that’s the way the league is going.”
But Zherdev has also been in management’s doghouse for selfish play and was never warmly received by his Columbus teammates or fans because he spoke only halting English and seldom made public appearances.
Zherdev was the No. 4 pick in the 2003 draft and had to sneak out of Russia under cover of darkness to get to North America because he feared he might be compelled to remain in his homeland under the guise of required military service.
He had 13 goals and 21 assists in 57 games after joining the Blue Jackets in December 2003. His production declined in his next two seasons in the NHL, falling to just 10 goals and 22 assists in 2005-06. He also held out for a new contract, missing the start of pre-season camp two years ago and angering then-general manager Doug MacLean.
Zherdev rebounded last year with a fine season that included several highlight-reel goals, frequently featuring his toe-drag move from the high slot.
“Zherdev is a player that we’ve had targeted for a couple of years,” Sather said. “This deal just sort of fell in our laps.”
Fritsche, 22, was a second-round pick who developed into a feisty third-line centre. He had 10 goals and 12 assists in 69 games last season.
The deal remakes the Blue Jackets – who signed free-agent defenceman Mike Commodore on Tuesday – into a solid defensive team in front of promising goalie Pascal Leclaire. Columbus is looking for its first post-season berth since joining the NHL in 2000.
“The Blue Jackets thought the team was a little weak on defence,” Fritsche said. “With the addition of Commodore and these two guys, they feel solid on the blue line with a lot of veteran leadership on the back end.”
Tyutin, who turns 25 later this month, adds a puck-moving blue-liner who can help Columbus’ power play. He’s coming off a year in which he had five goals and 15 assists for the Rangers, adding three assists in the playoffs.
“What can I say? I’m happy to be coming to Columbus,” Tyutin said by telephone from Guelph, Ontario. “I love to play the game. When I get there, I will try to play my best and work hard and improve myself and hope we can make it to the playoffs.”
Backman, 28, is six-foot-four and 210 pounds and gives the Blue Jackets another big defenceman to go with the six-foot-five, 228-pound Commodore. His numbers almost matched those of Tyutin last season, totalling three goals and 15 assists in the regular season.
“The addition of Fedor and Christian to our lineup has really improved our puck-moving ability from the blue line,” Columbus general manager Scott Howson said. “All strong teams are built from the back end out and we feel like we made significant strides in that area.”
The 29-year-old Huselius spent the past two-plus seasons with the Calgary Flames. After scoring 20 goals to go with 27 assists in 78 games with Florida and Calgary in 2005-06, he set career highs for goals (34), assists (43) and points (77) the following year. Last year, he had 25 goals and 41 assists in 81 games.