Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-16-2017
Some of the first words at 6'5" 230 defenseman Nikita Zadorov's draft presser were, "Yeah, I like to hit." The native of Moscow, Russia delivered that line with a "cat that ate the canary"smile that revealed his pure love for that aspect of the game.
Buffalo had two first round picks in 2013--their own No. 8-overall and the 16th which came from the Minnesota Wild in the Jason Pominville trade. With their first selection the Sabres picked 6'3" 219 lb. Finnish defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, whom then director of scouting Kevin Devine said they keyed upon. As the draft moved on and No. 16 was getting closer, Zadorov kept dropping.
With the Sabres in need of quality forward help in addition to definitive needs on defense, Devine said that the team had no intention of drafting another defenseman in the first round, but Zadorov kept dropping. Devine also said that he and his scouts had Ristolainen and Zadorov "neck in neck" leading up to the draft and as the big Russian kept dropping their eyes got bigger. When Zadorov dropped to No. 16, the Sabres snatched him up.
"We were looking to move up but teams were saying no and he kept sliding and sliding," said Devine at the time. "So, to get those two big guys [without trading up] was pretty nice."
After getting over the shock of the Sabres not drafting a forward with the second of their two first round picks, Sabres fans began to conjure up visions of a "Twin Towers" top-pairing on defense. Ristolainen was a two-way, right-handed defenseman who loved to get up ice while Zadorov loved to hit and was preened in Russia to play defense. At the Traverse City Tournament that year the two got plenty of time as a pairing and looked impressive causing Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch to write, "I'm no scout, but those two looked beastly on the backend."
That was the dream, a big, mobile left/right, top-pairing duo that would anchor the Sabres defense for years to come.
However, that's about as far as it got.
Both were with the Sabres to open the tumultuous 2013-14 season and while Ristolainen, touted as the most NHL ready defenseman at the 2013 draft not named Seth Jones, was thrown right into the fire, Buffalo was 10 games into an awful season before Zadorov hit the ice. Oddly enough, Zadorov's NHL debut came against the Colorado Avalanche. He recorded three hits in 11:01 of ice-time.
Buffalo was 1-8-1 after their loss to Colorado with the downward spiral spinning off the GM and head coach, as they were both fired. With a new regime in town, the many youngins that the team started with were eventually sent to their respective developmental leagues. After 34 games with the Sabres, Ristolainen was sent to Rochester where he played another 34 games while Zadorov was sent to junior, rejoining the London Knights.
It was at the end of that hockey season that their two paths diverged even further.
Ristolainen was very unhappy that he was sent to the Amerks and used that anger back in Finland by taking out his frustrations in the weight room. He hit Buffalo's 2014 Development Camp cut with a look that said, "You're not sending me back to the AHL this year. He never touched AHL ice again.
Zadorov came into development camp that year out of shape and not ready for the pro game. Here's what I wrote back in September, 2014 as the Sabers were looking at more cuts before heading into the regular season:
"D, Nikita Zadorov--Fans are clamoring for the big rear-guard to make the team this season, but he is still a very raw prospect. If (when?) he gets sent back to junior, it will be a big disappointment for Zadorov, but nothing should be given to him. He had the opportunity to dominate at Traverse City but failed to show up against Dallas and was benched for the second half of the game. That pretty much punched his ticket back to London for another season in junior. Zadorov has tons of talent, including untapped offensive potential, but he's still a kid that needs to mature both physically and mentally. Physically he needs to work on his conditioning. Mentally he needs to adopt a more a professional approach to make it to the NHL. There's a wonderful, fun-loving, mischievous child inside of Zadorov that could eventually meld with his skills, size and aggressiveness to produce a top-notch player that's a fun teammate to be with, but a pain to play against. That personality could eventually balance out the somewhat stiff, very professional Rasmus Ristolainen on a "Twin-Towers" defensive pairing (like they did at the 2013 Traverse City tournament) of the future. But Zadorov needs to pay his dues first. It's as simple as that."
It didn't get better for Zadorov either as he soon found himself in hockey no-man's land. He clearly wasn't ready for the NHL but was too good for junior, something that also happened to fellow first-rounder, Mikhail Girgorenko (2012, 12th-overall,) and there was soon a tug-of-war between three leagues. According to Bill Hoppe of the Olean Times Herald, his KHL team would not release his rights to the CHL, thus forcing Buffalo to keep him in a league he wasn't ready for or lose him to the KHL.
And it didn't get any better after that.
Zadorov had respectable numbers (3g, 12 assists, -10) for a 19 yr. old playing sheltered minutes that season, but he clearly wasn't ready physically or mentally for the game itself or the professionalism that was expected of him.
The Sabres worked on the conditioning part in-season and Zadorov responded, with the coach saying that the big Russian was working his butt off. It began to show on the ice but they were still unsure of his mental approach to the game going so far as to keep him with the Sabres instead of allowing him to go back to Russia to train for the 2015 World Junior Championships.
Those reservations ended up being well founded as Zadorov was bumped from a flight post All-Star break after he and his girlfriend spent the break in the Dominican Republic. He missed practice and the team flight to Calgary and was suspended by the team but would get back into the lineup in Vancouver after being out for two games.
GM Tim Murray could not have been pleased with the chain of events that occurred with Zadorov, nor that Zadorov, according to Murray, asked if his suspension was "part of the rules, part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement."
At the 2015 NHL Draft Zadorov was part of a package sent to the Avalanche for forwards Ryan O'Reilly and Jamie McGinn.
Of all the players Murray traded away, Zadorov was one of the toughest to see go. And with all the trouble Murray has had finding a d-partner for Ristolainen, having a maturing Zadorov in that spot would've saved everyone a lot of headaches. Would he have done so in Buffalo? Who knows?
The Sabres traded away a good one with plenty of upside in Zadorov but it's the old adage, "you have to give in order to get." O'Reilly is a consummate pro and has been better than expected in the eyes of many while helping transform the forward group. With Zadorov, you just never know. All the physical tools are there but how much progress can and will he make in the mental/professional aspects of the game is to be determined and it's something Murray probably wasn't interested in finding out. He knew what he was getting with O'Reilly.
Colorado visits Buffalo tonight with the worst record in the league. It will be the second team in Zadorov's career that's plummeting to the bottom. From what I've seen, he's still got that child-like demeanor and as Mark Scheiffle of the Winnipeg Jets found out a couple of weeks ago, he still likes to hit.
We'll see what he has in store for his former team tonight.