November 21, 2013
If there is one OHL team that got really good news this week, it’s the London Knights. Buffalo Sabres sent down their defenceman Nikita Zadorov to London, Ont., after a 7-game stint in the NHL.
One might think Zadorov’s performance in the big leagues would be a one-step-at-a-time kind of thing as he’s just an 18-year-old defenceman with nothing but two years of major junior experience under his belt. However, in seven games with the Buffalo Sabres prior to his return to the Memorial Cup-host London Knights, he averaged over 17 minutes of ice-time and scored a goal.
What does this kid have - nerves of steel?
“Actually, I wasn’t nervous at all,” says Zadorov. “No, seriously. I’d been waiting for that moment for such a long time, why would I be nervous? I’ve played hockey for 15 years. Why would I be nervous if I love the game?”
It may sound implausible but every NHL player will tell you the same – it’s easier to play on the big club rather than in the minors. Zadorov is no exception.
“It is easier to play in the NHL,” he assures. “For instance, in the OHL you often have nobody to pass the puck to – nobody’s open. Usually the guys just don’t know what to do or where to go. In the NHL, though, everybody’s making themselves available. You have a billion of options to whom you may pass.”
Barrie Colts alumnus Alexander Burmistrov once said he realized he was playing in the NHL when he got crushed behind his own net in one of his first games with the Winnipeg Jets. Is that a sentiment Zadorov can relate to?
“I think I realized it when Ryan Getzlaf scored his hat-trick goal because of my mistake,” said the 16th overall pick of the Sabres. “I wasn’t quick enough and he got in position. Corey Perry passed it to him and he scored. Well, what can I say? Getzlaf and Perry are one of the best players in the league. They’ve played together for a while now. All they needed was a split second and they turned it into a goal. I didn’t have time to do anything about it. It was then and there that I realized I play in the NHL and you always have to be on your toes in that league.”
Zadorov’s teammates made sure he would remember his first pro game in a bit of an unorthodox way.
“Before the warm-up captain Steve Ott told me to hit the ice without a helmet,” says Zadorov with a laugh. “He told me that first NHL game happens only once in a lifetime so it has to be memorable. I was a little scared at first. I mean, I couldn’t go behind the net, right? If I get hit in the head, that’s it, game over. Besides, a few years ago I saw how Taylor Hall got injured during a practice when someone stepped on his face wearing a skate. So I was a little worried but it turned out alright.”
Needless to say junior hockey players don’t just turn pros over night. It’s a learning process and coaches need to guide their young guns through it.
“Mostly I was told that I skate too much in my own zone,” says Zadorov. “They wanted me to play more of a positional defence. Every defenceman has his own sector and that’s what he’s responsible for. You shouldn’t go around and chase everyone trying to get the puck away from them. Instead, you should pay attention to your sector. Although, I think it’s something you learn through the games. I felt a big difference between my first NHL game and the ones after it.”
“I paid attention to defencemen – Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff,” says the Moscow native. “These guys have played in the NHL for a few seasons. I also followed defencemen from the other teams. For example, when we played the Kings I watched Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov. I took notes and tried to learn something from them. In the NHL you can learn something new after every game.”
He may have followed many established pros in the NHL but Zadorov also gained a fair bit of followers on twitter. However, they were disappointed to learn that ever since Zadorov put on the Sabres jersey he went ghost on that social media.
“Why? I still tweet. Although, I’m usually too lazy to do that. I mostly read what others tweet these days. I don’t know why I don’t tweet more often. It’s probably because of my schedule. Besides, there’s really nothing interesting going on in my life currently,” says Zadorov, who scored his first career NHL goal in his second career game.
Despite a great start with the Sabres, Zadorov still got sent back to the OHL and is very likely to compete at the World Juniors for Team Russia, not to mention the Mastercard Memorial Cup next May. Nevertheless, Zadorov would have preferred a different scenario for the season.
“Are you trying to tell me the World Juniors are better than the NHL?” chuckles Zadorov. “Don’t get me wrong. I love my country. I love playing for Team Russia. I’m always ready to go. But the NHL is the best league in the world. There’s nothing cooler than that.”
It’s tough to argue with Zadorov on that but make no mistake – even he would agree that winning the World Juniors and the Memorial Cup in the same year is pretty cool as well.