Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Just about a month ago, the Buffalo Sabres were in a bit of a quandary with defensive prospect Nikita Zadorov as he was caught in the middle of a tug-of-war.
At the time Zadorov wasn't ready for the NHL, but he had outgrown the CHL and even though he'd be a man against boys, if need be, the Sabres were prepared to send him to the OHL's London Knights. Basically, two things kept him out of London and in a state of limbo in Buffalo--his aversion to playing junior hockey and CSKA Moscow's (KHL) refusal to sign a release for him to play there.
If Buffalo had sent Zadorov to the OHL, he could have ended up playing in the KHL instead, something that the Sabres really weren't interested in. So they were forced to keep him with the team.
As Zadorov is readying himself to suit up for his 10th game for the Sabres this season, thus kicking in his entry-level contract, it would seem as if the team was able to make some lemonade out of the lemons handed them.
That the big, Russian defenseman has the size, skill and skating to play in the NHL is a given. Unfortunately, he didn't have the proper frame of mind coming into camp this off season as his conditioning left much to be desired. He was out of shape and it showed during rookie camp and the Traverse City Prospect Tournament. It was to the point where tourney bench boss Chadd Cassidy ended up benching Zadorov during a game vs. Dallas.
“That bench was not because I was a bad player." said Zadorov, "I wasn’t ready for that game. The coach said I didn’t have enough effort. That was my bad. I wasn’t ready for that tournament. Now I’m ready and it’s not going to happen again.”
When faced with the CHL/KHL quandary and a player who didn't have the conditioning to play at the NHL-level, the team dug in went about trying to get Zadorov into shape both physically and mentally. "We talked to him, said head coach Ted Nolan. "There were some things in parts of his life he had to change as far as his approach to the game."
During Nolan's weekly appearance on WGR's Howard Simon Show this past Tuesday, he said that it "didn't look too promising" for Zadorov to make the team after watching him this off season. "But since we've had him here," said the coach, "we put him under a microscope a little bit. We got him here a couple of hours before the other players showed up. Tommy Coolen and the coaching staff (including strength and conditioning coach, Doug McKenney) worked him extra in practice. We did that for a long time [to] see what kind of makeup he had.
"His development over the last month or so has been incredible."
During the month of October while the Sabres front office was trying to figure out what to do with Zadorov, the coaching staff was getting him up to game-speed. Out of the 11 games the Sabres played that month, he appeared in only one game, a 6:12/10-shift debut in Los Angeles vs. the Kings. Ten days later, he would get another opportunity and so far he hasn't looked back.
“It was a team buildup to help a young man reach his potential," said Nolan of the staff and the veteran players helping Zadorov get through it. "To watch it grow over the last month was pretty special."
A lot of credit needs to go to Zadorov as well. The 19 yr. old, 2013 first round pick (16th overall) has a simple, childlike approach to life which never leaves him nervous about anything. "I’m not nervous before the game," he said. "I’m not scared to do something and I’m not scared to make mistakes. I know everyone makes mistakes."
Within that happy-go-lucky state, though, lies the potential blow off the amount of work and dedication it takes to not only make it to the NHL, but to thrive in it. It took some extra work by all parties to get Zadorov from "not to promising" to NHL regular, but they got it done. The trick for the team now is getting him to balance dedication and professionalism without compromising his breezy, infectious personality.
Having him paired with a defense partner like Rasmus Ristolainen helps.
Ristolainen, who was drafted earlier in the first round (8th overall) in 2013, looks to be the yin to Zadorov's yang. The 6'4" 219lb. Finn came into camp in the best shape of his life, determined not to go back to Rochester where he finished last season playing 39 games for the Amerks. He has a rather serious demeanor and is becoming rock-solid in his d-zone.
“I think it’s unreal,” Zadorov said of being paired with Ristolainen. “You don’t see that every day. We’re just pushing each other, helping each other, just supporting each other to keep getting better every game.”
With the injury to defenseman Josh Gorges, Nolan has the duo as their second pairing, Nos. 3 and 4 on the depth chart. And he thinks he has a couple of good ones there. "For a 19 yr. old (Zadorov) and a 20 yr. old (Ristolainen) you have to be a special player to be playing in this league at a young age." said the coach on WGR. "Certainly they are, but they're still very young and they're only going to get better."
The duo has the organization, as well as it's fan-base, pretty excited. It's not everyday you see a U-20 pairing logging second-pairing minutes and if they can hold their own now, the future looks pretty bright.
A week ago Nolan said of the two being thrown into the fire, "They’re both young. When you go through things like this, you don’t know any better. You might just find your way through it.”
And find their way through it they did.
“We know where we want to end up," Nolan said of the pair yesterday. "You want to end up somewhere, you’ll have bumps in the road and you have to have patience and understanding. You have to have some true moments where you have to fight through certain things. These two younger defensemen are going to be great older defensemen when we get there.”