In this translated interview, originally appearing on the Russian portal sports.ru, Sabres defenseman Nikita Zadorov talks about getting a spot in the NHL, transition from junior to senior hockey, and his life in Buffalo.
* For the original sports.ru article by Dmitry Feshchenko, click here.
– Not long ago was the WJC time and Team Russia was represented by ’95-born athletes. You were a leader of this team in the past, but you couldn’t take part in the tournament. Did the Russian Ice Hockey Federation talk with you or your agent before the WJC?
– Yes, they did. [Team Russia head coach Valeri] Bragin called me and asked to join the team, but not everything was up to me, if a player logs many minutes, his NHL team isn’t going to free him up. [Avalance forward Nathan] MacKinnon and [Lightning forward Jonathan] Drouin didn’t play either, because they are important players for their teams. I really wanted to play, I know all the guys as we played together for three years in many different national teams, if it was up to me, I would have played.
– Did you follow the games?
– Yes, when I could, I followed Team Russia. The day of the finals we were in New York, I watched the game with [Sabres center Mikhail] Grigorenko. We were very sad when the score was 1-5, but then our guys started scoring and we started yelling around and cheering with all of our spirit. Too bad we lost.
– Would you accept to play at the IIHF WC in Czech Republic, should the coaches call you?
– Of course! I love playing for the National Team. I love my home country, I’m a patriot. I want to play for the National Team and I’ll do my best to achieve it.
– Last year you started your season very well, with some big hits and a goal in your second game. But you didn’t make the final Sabres roster. What do you think, what did you lack?
– Last year there were many changes with the team, we had a new coach, new GM, and they wanted to win. They decided to count on the most experienced players, and they assigned me, Grigorenko and [defenseman Rasmus] Ristolainen to the AHL or junior teams. I think I played well and I was ready to play in the NHL. Maybe I wasn’t as ready as I am now, this year I’m older and more experienced.
– Was it hard to get back to the OHL after playing in the NHL?
– Yes, it was hard, during the first five player I couldn’t understand where I was, it’s a completely different kind of hockey. In the NHL it’s another level, you have 4 players you can pass the puck to, they are all much stronger. In the OHL I went to the corner and got a penalty right away as I almost killed another player… I needed some time to adapt back.
– You dominated the OHL and you were on the shortlist for the top defenseman award. It looked like you outgrow that league. Don’t you think you lost a part of the season playing there?
– No, quite the opposite. I think I gained a lot from that experience. I had a lot of ice time, I played thirty minutes a night. I was part of a winning team. I played with players who now play in the NHL. I gathered some very valuable experience playing at the Memorial Cup, it helped me in understanding the game better.
– How did it happen that earlier in the season you had no game practice?
– Sabres coaches thought I wasn’t ready. When the team started losing, they gave me a chance and I used it. I showed that I could play in the NHL. I only needed to wait my chance.
– It was being rumored that you would spend the season in the KHL.
– Maybe my agent tried to explore this possibility, but they didn’t negotiate with me. I didn’t even think about it, I was focused on getting a spot with the Sabres.
– You usually played in contending teams, the Red Army junior team in the MHL, the London Knights, Team Russia… The Sabres are rebuilding. Is it hard to adapt?
– When you play, you play to win any game you play. This didn’t change. We wanted to win when I played in London, and we won, we’re trying to do the same now, but we can’t. We are rebuilding now, I think that in about three years the Sabres will be a very good team.
– Many think that teams like the Sabres and others try to get as low as possible in the standings to have a better chance to draft McDavid or Eichel. What do you think about it?
– I don’t even know how this can be possible. What should happen? You go and score in your own net? I think that this is totally ludicrous. The NHL is a league for winners, players do whatever it takes to play in the best league of the world. How can they lose on purpose? No one likes to lose, everyone wants to win.
– What kind of ties do you have with Ted Nolan?
– He’s a very good fellow, he’s a very direct person, and I like it. If you don’t do something well, he gets right to the point, he promplty says you what you’re doing right, and what you’re doing wrong. He is not one of those coaches who tinker with tactics, he feels his team, he feels the game and he understands what is needed to be done. He has very good assistants, who help him with the tactics. A head coach shouldn’t know everything, he should know how to win.
– What are the differences in the coaches’ requests in the MHL, OHL and in the NHL? More freedom? Less freedom? What they stress?
– I enjoyed the most freedom in London. You’re getting ready for the draft, you play for the scouts, so that they notice you. Scoring in the OHL is easier, after all the goalies aren’t the same as in the NHL. In the NHL everything is much harder, players are smarter, they have more experience and know exactly what to do. When Crosby is in the corner, he already knows that Malkin is in the slot. In the junior leagues players improvise more. In the NHL you play against men, not against kids like in the OHL.
– What NHL teams gave you the best impression?
– Pittsburgh and the Rangers.
– We had no chance, they have a lot of stars, and it was hard to do anything. Against Detroit, instead, for some reasons it has been easier. We were up 3-0, 3-1 after two periods. Yes, we lost, but we played well. Against Pittsburgh we didn’t have any chance to win.
– You played against many NHL stars. Who is the hardest forward to deal with?
– It’s hard to play against Zetterberg, he always “hides” the puck and it’s hard to negate him the possession. It’s hard to play against strong and fast forwards, like Kessel, MacKinnon, Giroux, Ovechkin… Stars are stars, everyone knows that if you give them even a single chance, they’re going to score.
– How do you like Buffalo? It isn’t a megalopolis.
– Yes, it’s not the biggest city out there, and well I talk about it as a muscovite. But there is everything you need: stores, cinemas, bowlings, bars, restaurants. The most important things, home and ice, you have where to live and practice. It’s not cold, but if compared with Moscow there is a lot of snow. I like everything here.
– What player do you live with in away games?
– If Grigorenko is with the team, then I’m with him. Otherwise, with Ristolainen. Rasmus is probably my best friend in the team, it’s nice to talk with him, we are the same year of birth and we usually play in the same pair.
– Did you have your rookie dinner?
– Yes, it was in Montreal.
– How did it go?
– All was silent [laughs]. I won’t reveal any secret, we are all alive. The next day we had a practice, everything went well.
A professional hockey writer and translator. Loves Russian culture, language, and hockey. Reachable on twitter @AlexSerenRosso