Nikita Zadorov is always happy to play for his country, even if it means getting the call late the night before. Zadorov, who was just sent back to the Ontario League's London Knights by the Buffalo Sabres, suited up for Russia at the CHL-Russia Super Series in Oshawa, Ont., last night. His inclusion was so sudden that his No. 16 sweater didn't even have his name on the back. But in the end, it wasn't necessary: Everyone knew who the 6-foot-5, 220-pound mountain of a defenseman was, especially when he put up three assists in Russia's 5-2 victory over the OHL contingent and blew up 6-foot-4, 217-pound Aaron Ekblad with a big hit.
Though the affable 18-year-old was recently sent down by new Sabres coach Ted Nolan and president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine, Zadorov wasn't mad.
“I'm happy because it's London,” he said. "That's the best place to play junior hockey and we host the Memorial Cup. It was a great experience for me, I got to play seven games in the NHL with the best of the best in the world. Now back to junior to do my job, try to be a leader on the team and play in the world juniors and Memorial Cup.”
Still, you get the sense the Russian blueliner would have liked the opportunity to prove himself to new coach Ted Nolan.
“It was a surprise for me,” Zadorov said. “I thought he would really like me because I play physical hockey like he wants. It's his and Pat LaFontaine's decision. I just listen to them and they told me to have fun in junior hockey, come back next year and be a leader in the NHL.”
At least Zadorov goes back to a steady situation. Fellow Russian teen Mikhail Grigorenko is going through a roller coaster right now because the Sabres can't send him to the American League, while his former junior team, the Quebec Remparts, already have the maximum two import players on their roster. An attempt to buy time by sending Grigorenko to the AHL on a “conditioning assignment” was nixed by the NHL. Instead, he was back with the Sabres, playing 12 minutes in a loss to Philadelphia.
Zadorov was going to check in on his buddy's progress after his interviews last night.
“We were friends in minor hockey and junior and everywhere,” he said. “He's a great guy and he helped me a lot. He was like an idol for me, probably. We have worked together a lot.”
Now Zadorov's challenge is to help pull London up in the OHL's ultra-competitive Midwest Division. He's coming back with some nice experience, to be sure.
“The NHL is different,” he said. “When you're playing against Stamkos, St-Louis, Duchene, Corey Perry – you have to stay with those guys pretty tight. Here, maybe it's different hockey.”
But he'll still be a formidable beast to get by on the Knights blueline, even if his attackers are a bit younger once again.