Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
When defenseman Nikita Zadorov was selected by his native Russia to attend their World Junior camp, he was in the midst helping his Buffalo Sabres team out of a season-long slump. It was late November and after starting the month with a 1-5-1 record, they seemed to be turning it around as the Sabres finished the month on a 5-1 run. One of the key ingredients in that turnaround was Zadorov.
Zadorov was paired with fellow 2013 first round pick Rasmus Ristolainen and the two would help anchor the blueline behind the top pairing of Tyler Myers and a surprising Tyson Strachan, who replaced the injured Josh Gorges. With things seemingly falling into place, the team on a roll and Zadorov looking like he belonged, the Sabres would've been hard-pressed to allow him to head to the WJC for a few weeks.
As always, things can change. The team has been slipping in December and Zadorov has taken a slight step back.
During this rebuild, the Sabres' organization has the present taking a back seat to long-term development. Players like Mark Pysyk and Mikhail Grigorenko are in Rochester even though a strong case could be made for them to be with the big club. 2014 second-overall pick Sam Reinhart is with his Kootenay Ice junior team after a nine-game audition with the Sabres to start the year. Although he didn't light things up in the NHL, the Sabres' could have kept him. His skill-level is well above junior, but given the choice between the NHL and CHL, they chose the latter.
In keeping with that theme, had there not been a tug of war between the CHL and the KHL, Zadorov would have been in junior now, giving him at least one more year of seasoning. When he came into camp this year he wasn't ready for the NHL, but while the whole process was unfolding, the coaching staff and trainers set him straight and he came out pretty strong.
Now comes the next phase which is whether it's best for him to stay under the watchful eye of the Sabres or head to his Russian team for the WJC in Toronto and Montreal which takes place between December 26 and January 5.
It's a no-brainer. Zadorov should hit the 2015 WJC with his Russian countrymen.
If one was worried about how it would affect the Sabres and their climb to respectability, one should remember just how far a respectable (read, middling) Buffalo team went over the course of the last six years or so. Despite them raising some eyebrows during their little hot streak to end November, there's still a major talent-gap between Buffalo and nearly every other team in the league. It's something that will continue to be so the rest of the season and if you're thinking playoffs, google Jim Mora's answer to playoff talk.
Though there is a big gap now, there's a rising tide of prospects that will soon close it. Hockeysfuture has the Sabres at the top of their organizational rankings for prospects and the fact that eight Sabres prospects have been invited to WJC camps confirms it. Set to join their respective countries as invitees are USA's Hudson Fasching and JT Compher, Canada's Reinhart and Nicolas Baptiste, Sweden's Victor Olofsson and Jonas Johansson, the Czech Republic's Vaclav Karabacek and Russia's Zadorov.
The future looks extremely bright, but it's a future that will be on hold for the remainder of this season as the team continues to reset. There's no real need to rush anyone in the system.
Even though Zadorov forced his way into the lineup, he's still only 19 yrs. old as Sabres head coach Ted Nolan reminded us today on WGR, "He may look like a big man," said Nolan to host Howard Simon, "but he's still a teenager."
Although the organization has not made a formal statement, Nolan said that GM Tim Murray in the past has allowed players to leave their NHL teams to play in the tournament. And from his statements on GR, Nolan seems to be a firm believer in allowing youngins to compete against players in their own age group.
Nolan pointed to Ristolainen's experience with Finland during last year's WJC. The Finnish defenseman scored the gold medal goal in overtime "and he was on a victory tour for two weeks before he got back here," chuckled Nolan. "That experience alone," continued Nolan, "I think had a big impact on getting him ready for this season. I'm a big believer of flourishing in your own peer group."
Even though Zadorov already on last years WJC All Tourney Team (along with Ristolainen) in helping Russia to a bronze medal, it couldn't hurt to go for the gold this year. He'll be playing against the likes of projected first overall pick Connor McDavid and the other two projected top picks Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin as well as Reinhart and the best junior talent from around the world. These will be the players he'll be facing year after year at the NHL-level. Doing what Ristolainen did last season and what the Sabres Jake McCabe did for his gold medal winning Team USA the year before is a priceless hockey experience.
Perhaps Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com put it best when it comes to Zadorov and how this decision will affect his development.
"Remaining in Buffalo and gaining both confidence and valuable big league experience could only lend to his long-term development as a player.
On the other hand, the potential to lead his country's peer group in pursuit of a gold medal certainly can't hinder him hockey-wise, and can actually prove positive in terms of developing a human being."
Here's to seeing Zadorov at the WJC and continuing his development as a hockey player and human being.
Ristolainen's gold medal goal thanks to FinnishHockeyNews: