The brightest spot from another dreary Sabres defeat was easy to find Saturday in First Niagara Center.
Nikita Zadorov, the 18-year-old defenseman taken with the second of Buffalo’s pair of first-round picks in June, made a strong NHL debut in the 4-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche.
Zadorov played 11 minutes, 1 second, had no turnovers and led what was a seven-man defense corps with three hits.
Zadorov, who suffered a sliced pinky in the final preseason game, was added to the roster two hours before the contest as fellow first-rounder Rasmus Ristolainen was sent to Rochester. Zadorov played as confidently as he did in the exhibition schedule, even though he admitted the pace of play with an opposing lineup full of veterans was much different.
“I’m never nervous before the game,” Zadorov said. “It’s my life to play hockey. Why be nervous if I like it? I did a pretty good job in the preseason games and the coaches saw that. I think they think I’m ready to go.”
The Sabres can give Zadorov nine games before his entry-level contract kicks in. They could still send him back to London of the OHL, but coach Ron Rolston said Zadorov will get more action in future games before any decision is made.
Zadorov said he did not know what the Sabres have planned for him.
“It’s a question for coaches. They told me to play hard every shift,” he said. “They just keep giving me more and more time. It’s the first NHL game for me. It’s a new life for me. I feel comfortable. It’s my game and I like to play hockey.”
With Zadorov dressing, the Sabres have become the first NHL team in 18 years to dress four teenagers in a season (Zadorov, Ristolainen, Zemgus Girgensons, Mikhail Grigorenko). In the 1995-96 season, the Sabres, Winnipeg and Florida all dressed at least four. The Sabres in that season had Jay McKee, Martin Biron, Wayne Primeau, Vaclav Varada and Curtis Brown.
Ristolainen’s demotion could be a paper move, with the Sabres figuring out what to do on defense before they play Boston on Wednesday. Ristolainen did not go to Rochester Saturday as he was spotted leaving the building after the Sabres’ defeat was completed and the scratched/injured players were dismissed.
The Avalanche were one of the worst teams in the NHL last year under Joe Sacco, now an assistant on the Sabres’ bench. At 7-1, they’re one of the best in the early going this year under new coach Patrick Roy, the Hall of Fame goaltender and former Stanley Cup champion with both the Avalanche and Montreal.
“They’ve been extremely receptive to the teaching we’ve done so far,” Roy said. “I love the intensity and energy that we have on the ice. I love how we play on our tracking, our backchecking. Everybody is committed to it. I love the commitment of our players since the first day of training camp. I could draw a list of things I love about my team right now. It’s fun to see how committed we are.”
The Avs won their first six games, allowing Roy to tie former Montreal teammate Mario Tremblay for the best start for a rookie head coach. They have allowed a Western Conference-low 12 goals and became the first team in NHL history to begin a season with five straight wins while allowing no more than one goal in each game.
Roy, of course, was the junior coach for Grigorenko in Quebec and admitted he’s as baffled as everyone in Buffalo about the 19-year-old center’s lack of production. Grigorenko is pointless in eight games this year and has one goal in 32 career NHL appearances.
“The area that we were trying to work hard with ‘Grigo’ was the compete level,” Roy said. “In my opinion, he was losing too many battles. At times Grigo thought he was working hard but in watching the clips he was not. Obviously we were trying to break that down. That’s all I can say. I can’t make comments for what happened in ‘Buff.’ I can make the comments for what happened in Quebec.”
Girgensons returned to the lineup after missing one game when he was struck near the eye by a puck Tuesday on Long Island. Cody McCormick sat out after taking a slapshot to the foot Thursday against Vancouver and Kevin Porter was a healthy scratch.
The Sabres are 9-7-6 against the Avalanche since they moved from Quebec in 1995. The teams meet again Feb. 1 in Denver, making this the first time since 2001-02 that they’ve met twice.