The first glance at Zherdev's phenomenal goal rate makes us think he needs more playing time. He's not getting it. I'm going to look deeper for clues about why he might or might not deserve more playing time. Prepare to dig into some stats.
The Flyers have 13 forwards who have played more than three games this year. All of the ranks below are out of those 13 except where noted, and they are all for even strength play only. (I dug into his PP time too, convinced myself he wasn't doing very well on it, and then decided it was too small a sample size and cut that from this analysis.)
Start and finish
Zherdev's offensive zone start percentage is 50.9%, which ranks him 4/13, behind only LBH and well ahead of the team average of 47.6%. Fine, the coach is using him in an offensive role; there's nothing wrong with that, but we should expect better-than-average outcomes if he's starting in better-than-average rink positions.
Where do Zherdev's shifts finish? Only 49.1% of them finish in the offensive zone, which ranks him 10th, ahead of only Powe-Betts-Shelley. The team average is 50.2%.
The narrative? Zherdev starts in the offensive zone much more than average and ends up in the defensive zone more than average. He's getting good starting position, but if they lose the face-off, he's highly ineffective at keeping the opposition out of the Flyers' end.
Most of you know by now that the stat community generally believes that there's a lot of noise in shooting percentage, so looking at shots generated is a better way to judge than goals on a small sample size like this. Remember, he's starting in the offensive end more than most of his teammates, so average play would bring above-average results here.
And indeed, he is achieving above-average numbers; he is third in relative Corsi at 8.5 (a measure of how many more shots the team gets off with him on the ice versus shots with him off the ice). He got up there mostly by volume of offense -- he ranks third when you sort the team by shots taken with that player on the ice (behind Leino and Briere), but ninth when you sort the team by shots against (ahead of LBH and Carter).
Fleshing out the narrative from above: Zherdev starts in the offensive zone much more than average, and does an adequate job with it, creating lots of shots. But if they lose the faceoff, he's not very effective at preventing the other team from setting up in the Flyers' end and getting shots off.
Here's where I started out this analysis: I knew the team averaged under 3 goals per 60 minutes with him on the ice, good for 7th among forwards. Given that he's starting out in these beneficial rink positions, I was expecting to skewer him for wasting that offensive opportunity. I thought my conclusion would be that he's scoring lots of goals but creating so few chances for teammates (his assist rate is remarkably low) that the team actually underperformed with him on the ice. But as I dug into it, I realized that wasn't really fair.
The team's shooting percentage has been quite low with him on the ice, at 8.64% (11/13). Actually, that's not low at all -- the league average is about 8.0% -- but it's quite low relative to his teammates, which is who we're comparing him to. (As an aside: consider this your warning that our opinion of the Flyers may be substantially overinflated by an unsustainably high team shooting percentage.)
So his line has done a good job of generating shots, and those shots have actually gone in at an above-league-average rate. But his teammates' shots have beaten the league average by even more, and so they've scored more goals with him off the ice (3.40/60) than on it (2.97/60).
And what about that individual goal rate? Zherdev is 119th among NHL forwards in SOG, at 91 (in 34 games), and is 39th in shooting percentage, at 15.4%. He is 282nd in ice time. So his individual shot rate is certainly well above average, at 12.3 per 60 minutes, but it is only when coupled with his extremely high shooting percentage that you get a ridiculous goal rate. And since we know extremely high shooting percentages aren't sustainable, we shouldn't look for him to keep that goal rate up in the second half (just like we don't expect Ovechkin to stay at 7.4%). But on the other hand, we shouldn't be beating him up for the Flyers scoring more with him off the ice; that appears to be more due to his teammates also having unsustainably high shooting percentages.
A few more stats before we're done
We do a reasonable job of blaming people for taking too many penalties, but we tend to pay very little attention to how many they draw. Zherdev is second on the team in that department at 1.7 penalties drawn per 60 minutes of ice time, behind only Giroux's 1.8. However, his teammates draw very few penalties while he is on the ice, as the team only draws 4 penalties per 60 minutes while he's on the ice (ahead of only JVR). This is partly because he's spent time with Carter and Betts, the two worst forwards at drawing penalties, but also appears to be partly because his teammates just don't draw as many penalties when they're paired with him -- perhaps because he's the one with the puck?
And finally, we need some context to factor in the quality of his teammates and opponents. By +/-, he is right in the middle of the pack, both 7/13 in quality of teammates and 7/13 in quality of competition. By Corsi, he is 10th in quality of teammates and 9th in quality of competition. By either measure, it looks like his teammates and opponents are about equal strength, so we can rely on the numbers above without qualification.
Zherdev's goal rate is ridiculously high, but since this is driven by an unsustainable shooting percentage, that shouldn't be a reason to push for ice time on its own. However, there is good reason to push for ice time for him based on his ability to convert on offensive situations. He's started in the fourth-best situations and generated the third-most shots for his team, so he's doing his job there in creating offense -- it's not the dominating performance his goal rate suggests, but it's an average-plus performance.
So why isn't he getting ice time? This is a deep and talented group of forwards, and it takes more than just offensive adequacy to break into the top nine. He is performing to the norm, or maybe slightly above it in terms of getting shots out of his offensive opportunities, but he is performing way below the norm at stopping the opponents from getting their chances. He is starting in the offensive zone much more than average and yet allowing shots against much more than average, and that defensive liability overcomes his average-plus offensive performance to date and results in a scarcity of ice time.