The Buffalo Sabres had big expectations for Nikita Zadorov when they drafted him 16th overall in June. And while he may not play in the NHL this season, the 6-foot-5 Russian clearly has been one of the surprise stories of training camp.
Zadorov’s play has impressed the Sabres enough that the team signed him to a three-year, entry-level contract Wednesday night. Terms were not disclosed.
The 220-pounder looked good in summer development camp, was a standout in the prospect tournament hosted by the Detroit Red Wings earlier this month and hasn’t looked out of place in NHL exhibitions either.
Zadorov, who did not play in Wednesday’s 3-0 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in First Niagara Center, has a plus-4 rating in three games and scored the Sabres’ first goal in Sunday’s 5-3 loss in Toronto.
“He is advanced and he’s continued to get better,” General Manager Darcy Regier said during the first intermission Wednesday. “He was good in Traverse City and he’s continued to get better here so he’s on a nice path.”
“I’m really happy. It’s my first pro contract,” Zadorov said in his improving English. “I’m in Buffalo here and just working to make the team.”
Zadorov had six goals, 19 assists and 54 penalty minutes in 63 games last year for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League and is expected to return there to play this year.
Zadorov, 18, said at the NHL Entry Draft in Newark, N.J., in June that he felt he could be more of an offensive player in spite of a reputation that has been built largely on some punishing body checks. The goal Sunday, on a feed from John Scott as he moved up on the play in the Toronto zone, was a good example of that.
“For sure I want to try to do more,” Zadorov said. “I never played that way before. Just last year when I came to Canada, the coaches showed me how to play an offensive game, how to score goals. I like it.”
“I knew that he’s a great skater, a pretty skilled guy,” said Sabres center Mikhail Grigorenko, a Russian World Junior team member with Zadorov last year. “I think he’s probably surprised a lot of people that such a big guy could skate and could have amazing hands.”
The Sabres knew top pick Rasmus Ristolainen, taken eighth overall, was likely to make the team and played a mature game because he had competed professionally in Finland against older players. Zadorov had not until this preseason.
“‘Z’ is coming from juniors and really learning from other guys,” coach Ron Rolston said this week. “Part of the surprise is how he’s picking things up and his progress within the camp.”
Regier said the Sabres intended to get Zadorov signed as soon as they could. The deal does not impact whether or not he makes the team; if he plays in juniors this year, the contract doesn’t kick in.
“I’m working on my physical play, my shot, everything,” Zadorov said. “I’m in here right now. If I have a chance, I want to try to play here and make the team. I’m a young guy. It’s a great experience for me.”
The Sabres currently have nine defensemen in camp and Regier said they will keep seven or eight. Barring another decision, the easiest move is putting Zadorov in junior.
“He would be going back to London, arguably one of the top junior teams in the Canadian Hockey League,” Regier said. “They host the Memorial Cup next year, so that means he’s playing deep into the season, deep into the spring. He’s performed well here too so we’ll continue to have the conversations over the next few days.”
An announced crowd of 17,346 saw the Sabres improve to 4-1-1 in the preseason with Wednesday’s win.
Ville Leino opened the scoring at 4:58 of the second period, with Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons (empty net) tallying in the third. Jhonas Enroth made 26 saves, 13 while the team was short-handed for the shutout. Ryan Miller will play in the preseason finale Friday in Carolina.
One downer was a hand injury suffered by rookie winger Joel Armia late in the second period. He did not return and Rolston said the team’s No. 1 draft pick in 2011 would need further evaluation.