Nikita Zadorov: Buffalo Mishandled his Development

Teenaged hockey prospects, like Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko, once were need special handling. An 18-year-old is a legal adult, but not necessarily a developmental one. It really depends on the person — for instance, Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog seemed to be born with the maturity of a 3o-something. That’s rare, though.

Athletes who turn professional in their teens are often even less mature. There’s good reason for that — athletes have to spend the majority of their lives working on their sport. There’s little time for working on other aspects of their lives, such as learning to think for themselves.

Different sports and even different teams develop methods of accommodating this reality. Football players often don’t turn professional until they have at least a couple years of college. Basketball tends to be the same way.

In the NHL, though, players are typically drafted as 18-year-olds. If they are far along in their hockey development, they could make the team right away — as an 18-year-old. Needless to say, playing hockey in the NHL is not the same type of job as working at McDonalds — or even managing one. It’s an intense, stressful situation for players of any age.

And some NHL teams leave players to figure it out for themselves, regardless of age. That appears to be what the Buffalo Sabres did with Nikita Zadorov.

Nikita Zadorov, the Beginning

Defenseman Nikita Zadorov was selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft, 16th overall. Zadorov turned professional right away, though he played only seven games for the Sabres themselves. He spent the majority of the year playing for the OHL London Knights. (Ironically, he made his NHL debut against the Colorado Avalanche.)

The next season, Zadorov made the team from opening night. He played 60 games for the Sabres but had limited ice time.

Nikita Zadorov’s Development

Now, Nikita Zadorov, a Russian national, had played the 2012-13 season with the London Knights as a 17-year-old. Typcially players in that situation stay with a billet family who serves as a surrogate for their parents. The next season, Zadorov was already bouncing back and forth between Buffalo and London as an 18-year-old. No telling if he was living with a billet family in London, but he almost certainly wasn’t in Buffalo.

So, here’s the situation for 18-year-old Nikita Zadorov — he barely knew what city he was going to be living in on a regular basis. There was no way to develop consistency in his first “adult” year.

Again, this isn’t the same as sending a kid off to college or to his first apartment and the working world. This was akin to sending the kid off to a limbo space where he could be either a college student or a working stiff, depending on someone else’s needs.

Nikita Zadorov’s Problems with the Sabres

By the 2014-15 season, Nikita Zadorov was a 19-year-old who finally had a steady home situation. Not only did he know he was based in Buffalo — allowing him to set up house — he set up said house with a steady girlfriend that became his wife over the summer.

That’s significant because it looked as if Zadorov was living a man’s life. yet during that period, he pulled two typically teenager moves.

The first mistake almost seemed to not be his fault. During the All Star Break, when players had several days’ vacation if they weren’t All Stars, Zadorov headed to the Dominican Republic with his girlfriend.

Unfortunately, the airline oversold the flight back by six people, and Nikita Zadorov was one of the people selected to take a later flight. According to Rolland Hedges, Zadorov’s agent, the defenseman “tried everything to get back.” However, he had elected to stay on vacation until the last possible minute, and the delay meant he couldn’t report to the team on time following the break.

Now, the adult thing to do would have been to schedule the flight a day earlier or at least earlier in the day. An adult professional athlete may have thought to offer “incentives” in the form of free tickets and, let’s face it, money to one of the other couples to trade seats with him. I’m guessing Zadorov didn’t try that — he probably didn’t feel comfortable approaching people thus.

As a result of his failing to report back on time, the Buffalo Sabres suspended Zadorov as a punishment.

Zadorov was suspended again later in the year when he overslept his alarm clock and was late to a team meeting. Now, doesn’t that sound like the most teenaged thing in the world to do? (Zadorov showed maturity in standing before the team, apologizing and taking full blame.)

Even Buffalo Sabres coach (at the time) Ted Nolan acknowledged Zadorov’s age in relation to the mistakes:

“When you’re a 19-year-old kid, sometimes if you’re not instructed to do things, you know how kids can be sometimes. But this will be a big, big learning curve for him.”

When I heard about these two Nikita Zadorov stories, I couldn’t help but think about how the Colorado Avalanche would have handled things differently.

Nurturing Teenaged NHLers

Jan 17, 2015; Buffalo, NY, USA; Buffalo Sabres defenseman Nikita Zadorov (51) before the game against the Philadelphia Flyers at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Avalanche have a long history of “billeting” their teenagers with older players. As far back as 1998 draft pick Alex Tanguay, teens who make the team live with a family-oriented teammate. Tanguay lived with then-goalie Patrick Roy. Center Matt Duchene lived with Adam Foote, center Ryan O’Reilly with Darcy Tucker and center Nathan MacKinnon first with J.S. Giguerre then with Max Talbot.The one exception was Gabriel Landeskog, but like I said, he’s preternaturally mature.

This practice is not relegated to the Colorado Avalanche. After being drafted by the St. Louis Blues and even spending a year at college, defenseman Erik Johnson lived for a year with Al McInnis’ family before venturing out on his own.

The veteran players provide a transitional household for these young players. It’s not so much that they’re surrogate parents at this stage. Rather, they seem to function like older brothers. The youngsters typically have as much freedom as they want, but they’re always guaranteed a good meal and a bit of the family life. (MacKinnon reportedly went from playing video games with Giguerre’s children to doting on Talbot’s newborn baby.)

And the youngsters typically carpool to and from team events with the more mature player.

I don’t know if the Buffalo Sabres ever provide such a situation for their teens. If so, it certainly appears Nikita Zadorov didn’t take part. And that’s a pity. I just picture Tucker or Giguerre advising his young charge to book an earlier flight back from vacation. As far as oversleeping, imagine an irritated Adam Foote or — yikes! — Patrick Roy yelling that it’s time to go NOW!

In other words, Zadorov wouldn’t have made either mistake. The “learning curve” needn’t have been so steep.

Well, luckily for Nikita Zadorov — and hot prospect Mikko Rantanen, if he makes the Avs — the Colorado Avalanche are a close-knit team with the structure to nurture teen NHLers. Though Zadorov is married now, I just laugh to think if he happens to car pool with, say, fellow defenseman Erik Johnson. That is one behemoth you do not want to keep waiting because you overslept.