Nikita Zadorov has officially progressed from goofy kid to question mark. The big defenseman has the look of a future standout all over him on the ice. But the problem is making sure he’s ready to take the ice.
Focus, maturity and professionalism remain in doubt for the 19-year-old. These are things the Sabres clearly seem to be trying to get under control right now after Zadorov was sat down again for Sunday’s shootout loss to Nashville.
The Sabres are mum on what’s up with Zadorov this time. The kid showed he needed a travel agent when he came home late from a Dominican vacation after the All-Star break, and maybe he just needs a good alarm clock too.
Coach Ted Nolan stammered through some sort of explanation Sunday morning, first pointing out Tyson Strachan would not play due to an infection and then noting another call needed to be made to Rochester for whatever it was that happened with Zadorov. The call went up the Thruway at about 10 a.m., so the Sabres were clearly planning to have Zadorov in the lineup.
One possibility making the rounds is that Zadorov goofed on the report time Sunday morning, forgetting that everything was pushed up an hour by the 6 p.m. start instead of the customary 7 p.m. faceoff.
Of course, the rest of the team made it on time. Whatever the reason, it’s just the latest entry in the Zadorov follies.
Zadorov got benched at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament by Rochester Amerks coach Chadd Cassidy. When he got to training camp, the Sabres made it clear they felt he was overweight. He played one game in October, totaling just 6:12 of ice time, and his agent made it clear Zadorov wasn’t interested in returning to London of the OHL and might want to take a run at returning home to Russia for the year.
For their part, the Sabres weren’t interested in that option. With Rochester not a possibility, the Sabres would have liked him to go back to junior and keep learning under coach Dale Hunter, the longtime NHL gnat who is a junior icon in the Western Ontario city. But after pretty much the worst October in their history, and satisfied Zadorov was in game shape, the Sabres put him back in the lineup.
He became a key cog through the team’s successful run that lasted almost to Christmas. But Zadorov’s play started to tail off after the new year. There were a couple of healthy scratches, then two more when he failed to return on time after the All-Star break from a holiday in the Dominican Republic.
The Sabres have had Zadorov on a short leash, scratching him instead of Rasmus Ristolainen when Zadorov’s fellow 2013 first-rounder has also struggled. Sunday’s game was the seventh Zadorov has missed.
“It’s an in-house matter, he’s going through his growing pains but I’m confident will have it figured out,” said captain Brian Gionta.
When you breed an atmosphere that losing is acceptable, like Sabres management has absolutely done this year, this is the risk you take. Guys can go off on their own and think there’s no reason to have accountability. This is not how you teach a 19-year-old how to be a professional.
Still, in an often sullen season, Zadorov is a funky breath of fresh air in the dressing room. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy who says all the time in his wonderful broken English how happy he is to get the chance to play the game he loves.
When Nolan was asked about Zadorov on Friday after the word came the kid was getting scratched for the game against the New York Rangers, he couldn’t say enough good things looking ahead to the future. With Steve Ott, Ryan Miller and, most recently, Tyler Myers traded right after Nolan lavished them with praise, you wonder if that curse could strike Zadorov too.
You wonder how tempted General Manager Tim Murray might be to make a move with Zadorov as the March 2 trade deadline approaches. Murray, remember, doesn’t have to have allegiance to him. Zadorov wasn’t his draft pick.
One of the worst-kept secrets in hockey is Murray’s near-obsession with Colorado center Ryan O’Reilly. Whether it’s next week or this summer, you wonder how tempted Murray is to reunite Mikhail Grigorenko with Avalanche coach Patrick Roy, who had him in junior, and to include Zadorov in a package.
Murray is stoking the O’Reilly fires and, after another terrific outing Sunday, you have to believe the Michal Neuvirth audition is going well enough for Murray to get something for him. There were half-hearted jokes in the press box Neuvirth will be starting here Thursday night – for Vancouver against the Sabres if Ryan Miller’s bad-looking leg injury suffered Sunday on Long Island turns out to be serious.
Zadorov has been a non-starter on any trade thoughts. You wonder now. He has a lot of support from the he’s-only-19 crowd out there, folks who are backed up by the didn’t-you-do-stupid-things-at-19 group. Phooey on both groups.
This is a professional athlete raking in $925,000 to perform his job, whether he’s 19 or 29. The age doesn’t give him an excuse. Nolan continued to give cryptic answers after the game on Zadorov, saying only, “We’ll talk with him and we’ll see what happens there.”
Practice on Monday should be interesting. If Zadorov isn’t in the lineup Tuesday in Columbus, that will be pretty telling. And what if Murray and Nolan pull the kid aside and say, “Hey, you had enough sun in the Dominican over the break. You think you’re going to Florida this weekend? Nyet to that.”
Then the showdown will really be on.