A few days ago, out of the blue, rookie defenseman Nikita Zadorov pulled Rob Ray to the side for a little discussion.
“Bring your skates in,” Zadorov said. “We’re going to center ice, and I’m going to kick the living …” and, well, you know the rest.
Ray laughed, of course.
“It caught me off guard,” Ray said Saturday before the Sabres rallied for a 4-3 victory over the Islanders in a shootout. “But that’s just the way he is. I told him, ‘Yeah, I’ll bring them in. You just tell me the day. You want me to sell tickets to it? You want me to wait until the end of the year so I don’t hurt you or embarrass you?’ ”
For weeks, the promising 19-year-old player and the 46-year-old enforcer-turned-commentator have had a running joke about going to toe-to-toe and settling things once and for all. Just for kicks, Zadorov has made snide comments to Ray during games while skating past him on his way to the Sabres’ bench.
When asked about his relationship with Razor, Zadorov asked, “Who’s Razor?”
You know, he was told, Rob Ray.
“Oh, him,” Zadorov said. “I didn’t know he had a nickname.”
Ray can’t get enough of the kid. Despite coming from different continents and playing different positions in different eras, they formed a fast friendship because they shared the same approach to the game. Zadorov is a character, like Ray, with his intensity on the ice and infectious personality everywhere else.
You can only hope the multibillion-dollar industry known as the NHL doesn’t strip the 6-foot-5, 244-pound man-child of his youthful exuberance and sense of humor. Both have been lacking in the organization. Buffalo could have two top-end defensemen if he and Rasmus Ristolainen continue to evolve.
Zadorov is a graceful skater for a big man and has a great feel for the game. He possesses a rare combination of size and skill, weaved neatly into his fierce competitiveness, aggression and playfulness. It comes together because he follows hockey’s basic instructions:
Work hard, have fun.
It’s precisely what the Sabres did in the third period Saturday. They fell behind, 3-0, worked to get back into the game and had a blast while scoring three goals in the final period to force overtime. Zadorov played 25 minutes, 59 seconds, filling in for Ristolainen on the power play after he left with illness. Zadorov was on the ice for the final moments of OT before Tyler Ennis scored the only goal in the shootout.
Zadorov played a key role yet again and took another step toward establishing himself as a reliable young player in this league. Long gone are questions about his commitment after he reported to training camp out of shape. Remember, he watched 11 of the first 12 games before whipping himself into condition and returning a hungry, determined player.
He has since been one of the Sabres’ best defensemen.
“Every player wants to play,” Zadorov said. “Sometimes, it’s hard not playing six or seven games, sitting in the box, eating popcorn and not helping your teammates. I was like, ‘Come on, give me a chance.’ I was just waiting for that chance. When I step on the ice, I want to play. I love the game.”
You understand his appetite when you learn his backstory, how he often skipped school in Moscow to practice on his own, how he was spared discipline from his grade-school teachers who knew they couldn’t stop him. He was obsessed with hockey while growing up in an upper middle-class family in post-Cold War Russia.
Determined to play in the NHL, he left home for London of the OHL when he was 17 and made a seamless transition to North America. He knew three English words when he arrived and taught himself the language in three months. He’s fluent now with a few understandable, if not amusing, hiccups along the way.
Zadorov’s reply when asked about his family joining him in Buffalo for Christmas: “In Russia, we celebrate the Happy New Year. The Christmas is for the Cath-o-lics, right? We’re not from there.”
How do you not love this kid?
Nolan smiled Saturday at the mere mention of his name. His teammates react much the same. He shows up for practice every day with a smile on his face. He shares an apartment in Buffalo with his girlfriend, is playing in the best league in the world and is getting paid a good buck.
He’s also turning into a terrific young player.
Once he cracked the lineup, Nolan couldn’t take him out. The Sabres are 11-10-2 with him playing a regular shift after going 3-9-1 in the first 13 games.
He’s not the only reason for their improvement, but his emergence has been a key factor.
“You can’t teach 6-5,” veteran Josh Gorges said. “Then you add his ability to skate and move, his skill set, his shot and his hands. He plays with an edge. He’s not afraid to get in the middle. He’ll get dirty and play a physical game. He’s got all the tools to be a fantastic defenseman for a lot of years.”
That, folks, is the plan.
Zadorov has been a bright spot in a trying season, a building block who offers hope for the future. The game Saturday against the Islanders was a reminder about the importance of the draft. Zadorov, taken 16th overall in 2013, is evidence they need not wait for some No. 1 pick overall to rescue them.
The Sabres will benefit more from pushing forward this season, as they did Saturday, than holding back and hoping for a potential savior. Zadorov is growing before our eyes. He played so well during the first 24 games with Buffalo that the Sabres couldn’t afford to release him to Russia for the world juniors.
“He’s got a great personality, he really does,” Nolan said.
“He has a great demeanor. He’s one of those guys, in two or three years or whenever this team is going for championship games, and it’s a pressure cooker, he’s going to have a calm demeanor. There’s no panic in his game whatsoever.”
Zadorov is playing nearly 19 minutes per game. His minus-3 rating leads all Buffalo defensemen who played more than three games this season. He has been physical. He’s been consistent considering he’s a teenager still finding his way.
And he hasn’t been overwhelmed against the game’s best players. If anything, he looks like he’s been in the NHL for years. He’s playing with confidence, and he and his teammates are having fun.
In fact, it could be the biggest reason they have played better since he earned his spot. After all, as Ray often says, hockey really is just a game.
“It’s the best life,” Zadorov said. “When you’re doing your favorite stuff, when you’re playing hockey and you love it, and you’re making money from it, it’s a good deal.”