He likes to hit people and score goals.
That’s how defenseman Nikita Zadorov describes his game, and he did both for the Buffalo Sabres at the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich. last week.
Zadorov scored two goals in the tournament, both in the game against the New York Rangers prospects. His second goal was the overtime winner, a blistering slap shot he stepped into from the point.
If he was still playing in Russia, taking that shot may not have been encouraged. However, since he came to North America last season to play for Dale Hunter and the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, his offensive game has started to open up.
“All my coaches and ex-coaches before [in Russia], they don’t like to play an offensive game. If you’re a defenseman, you should play just defense,” Zadorov said. “Here, in London, Dale told me if you play defense, you can play offense after if you can.”
The Sabres selected the 6-foot-5, 219-pound Russian with the 16th overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. He was the second defenseman they chose in the first round after taking Rasmus Ristolainen with the eighth overall pick.
“The plan wasn’t going in to take two defensemen, but we had those guys neck and neck, Zadorov and Ristolainen,” assistant general manager Kevin Devine said in Newark after the draft. “Some [scouts] actually liked Zadorov better than Ristolainen. To get those two big guys was pretty nice.”
As Zadorov kept sliding down the draft board, Sabres rookie center Mikhail Grigorenko, his friend and fellow countryman, was hoping he would still be around when Buffalo stepped back up to the podium.
“I was really excited for the 16th pick and he was still out there,” Grigorenko said. “I was really hoping Buffalo would call his name and they did it, so I was really happy.”
Zadorov and Ristolainen were paired together in Traverse City and were the Sabres’ best tandem for much of the tournament. The coaching staff relied on them in the first game against the Columbus Blue Jackets prospects on a defensive zone face off with less than a minute to play while holding a one-goal lead. Zadorov ended up running out the clock by pinning the puck along the boards.
“[Ristolainen’s] a great player. We both can play offense. We both can play defense and I like playing with him,” Zadorov said.
One of three members of the London Knights drafted in the first round in 2013, Zadorov will likely head back there this fall and be a top defenseman for them.
Like he says, he likes to score and hit, so I think he’ll be really fun to watch. - Mikhail Grigorenko
He said he moved to North America in order to boost his chances of playing in the NHL one day and gives a lot of credit to the front office in London, especially Dale Hunter and his brother Mark.
They helped him adjust to life in North America and the culture changes that come with it. They also watch video with him and try to improve his on-ice game. He picked up the English language along the way from his teammates and lessons with a teacher.
Zadorov wasn’t selected to play for Team Russia during the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship, but teammates on the defensive corps like Olli Maatta and Scott Harrington left the Knights to play for their respective countries. Their absences opened the door for Zadorov. He started to see more and more ice time and began to play against the opposition’s top lines.
“There were no defensemen in London and I played a lot. I played good. I think Dale, he watched my game and he saw that I was ready to play as a top-four defenseman on the team and I started to play there,” he said.
The Knights won the OHL title last year but lost in the Memorial Cup semi-finals to the Portland Winterhawks. London hosts the Memorial Cup this season and the prospects of playing in that tournament again excite Zadorov.
“Next year, London’s going to be crazy,” he said on the Sabres Hockey Hotline radio show in July. “I think the fans are so happy and we’re happy because we’re hosting the Memorial Cup.”
Zadorov is now one step closer to reaching his goal of becoming an NHL defenseman and as training camp progresses, he’ll look to impress members of the Sabres organization.
“He hits pretty hard and he’s also just a real good player,” Grigorenko said. “He can skate. He has real good skills and like he says, he likes to score and hit, so I think he’ll be really fun to watch.”