Nikita Zadorov has established himself in the NHL by guarding the blue line for the Colorado Avalanche the past four seasons.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound defenseman has played more than 280 games in the league since being selected in the first round (No. 16 overall) of the 2013 draft by the Buffalo Sabres. His last 216 contests have come in the Avs' burgundy and blue colors after Colorado acquired him in a draft day trade on June 26, 2015.
Zadorov recorded a career-high 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) during the 2017-18 campaign with the Avalanche and has already tied his personal best for goals this season with seven. After 73 games, he also leads the club with 195 hits and is tied for second with a plus-15 rating.
The Moscow, Russia, native is still young at only 23 years of age, but he has already come a long way since arriving in North America without knowing how to speak English.
How did you start playing defense?
"Ever since I started playing, I was always bigger than anyone else. So the coaches decided to put me on defense, and I've been there ever since."
Being physical is a big part of your game, when did you start to develop that style of play?
"I think it's always been there. In Russian minor leagues--when we were kids--we can hit, so it's not like here where you cannot hit until you're older. So I've always been hitting and playing physical. It's been that way for pretty much all my life."
Is playing a physical game something you enjoy?
"Yeah, I like big hits. When I was a kid, I was watching highlights of the biggest hits in the NHL and everything. It would get me pumped all the time, so I just like doing that and with my size I can do that."
Video: COL@DET: Zadorov crunches Athanasiou along the boards
You have showed some offensive ability in recent years, is that something you're looking to add more of?
"Obviously in hockey, when you make it to this level and you're playing in the NHL--and for sure if you're a defenseman--you have to defend first and then you can jump in on the play. We've got a great team, great players who can make plays and we trust them, and that's why for us defensemen it's easier to be more offensive on this team."
What was the transition like coming to North America and playing for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League before you got drafted?
"It was different, obviously the culture, the language and everything. I think I was 16, and I didn't speak any English or anything and I was away from my family. But I was preparing myself for that, I always wanted to come over. There were three older guys who played before me, Russian guys who came over and played in the OHL, and I was watching their highlights all the time the year before. It was my dream to play there, especially with the London Knights--it's probably one of the best organizations in junior hockey in the world. So it was a pleasure to play there, and I still text my London teammates to this day. It was just a great time, and it helped make me the player I am today. I developed there pretty good and then translated my game to the North American style. "
What was your experience like at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship with Team Russia?
"That was fun. It was so much fun playing at the World Juniors. I feel like it was just a great time. When you're growing up around all those guys on that team and then you're coming over here to play, you don't see them for a long time. To come back and play in that tournament with them, it was so much fun and we had a really good team. We lost to Sweden in the semis, but they were so sick; they have I think 10 guys playing in the NHL right now. It was just a great experience, and it was fun playing in that tournament."
Since your NHL debut in 2013, what are some of the things you've learned?
"Probably that you have to play at the same level every game is the biggest thing. When I came over, I was kind of up and down. I could have three good games, then three bad games. Right now in this league if you're a defenseman, you have to be consistent, so that's the biggest thing probably. Obviously, I've grown as a person and as a player. I've gotten more physical. I've gotten more experienced and everything there, but you're getting all that by playing games."
How have you become more comfortable with the Avalanche organization?
"You just build relationships, like with coaches, with Joe Sakic, all the guys up top. You know what to expect from each other, and they expect me to play good hockey, play hard, play physical and that's what I want to show them. This organization is great, our coaching is really good and our GM takes care of us. You can see we have a bunch of leaders, a bunch of winners in this room, and we're a hungry group of guys who want to win."
A version of this story appeared in the 2018-19 third edition of AVALANCHE, the official game magazine of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey Club. For more feature stories, purchase a copy of the magazine during Avs home games at Pepsi Center. All proceeds from game-magazine sales support youth hockey associations in Colorado.