Buffalo - November 17, 2014 - Sam Reinhart wasn’t the only player general manager Tim Murray had to make a decision on this season.
It’s taken a little while longer, but he’ll have a similar decision to make on towering young defenseman Nikita Zadorov very shortly. To start the year, Zadorov couldn’t find his way to the ice; the press box being the only place he’d wind up.
Eventually, he got himself into playing shape and back into the good graces of head coach Ted Nolan. He’s played eight games with the Sabres this year, making the most of his 15 minutes per night. He’s also tied with Zemgus Girgensons for the team-lead in plus-minus at +3. Oh, he’s also leading the team in relative Fendwick, which basically means that when he’s on the ice, the Sabres are directing more shots toward the net than their opponents. Not bad for a 19-year-old who couldn’t get on the ice if his life depended on it earlier this year.
Still, with just one more game left in his “try out” period – players under the age of 20 and still in junior get a nine game stint before their entry-level contract kicks in – this isn’t an easy decision for Murray.
Though he’s looked very good in his eight game stint in Buffalo, it’s still just that: eight games. It’s a very small sample size and in no way does it mean that he can sustain it for five more months. Not only that, he’s been somewhat sheltered in his 15 minutes per night and doesn’t see time on either special teams unit.
His offensive game was never really his strong suit, so his one assist and nine shots aren’t all that alarming, but his six giveaways in eight games is a ratio he really needs to improve on considering he’s supposed to be a stay-at-home defender.
There is, of course, the realization that this season is going to be brutal that might be reason enough to keep Zadorov away until next year. While it could be beneficial for a youngster to take their lumps and learn on the fly, playing for a team as bad as this could possibly screw with his confidence. That’s the last thing this organization wants is to mess with the confidence of one of their brightest prospects.
But as is life, it’s not all bad…
Again, he’s tied for the team lead in plus-minus and has a great relative Fenwick. He’s showed great poise and positioning beyond what’s expected of a rookie defenseman, let alone one who hasn’t hit drinking age.
On top of that, he’s shown that he can play top-pairing minutes, taking on 25-plus minutes of ice time against Minnesota a few nights ago (granted, it was a 6-2 loss, but he wasn’t involved in any of the goals). With the blue line being such a mess – Andre Benoit and Andrej Meszaros have been utter garbage this season -- there is playing time for the taking if he sticks around.
More importantly, most young players need time and reps to develop. Letting him get acclimated with a full season in the bigs would put him in a better position to succeed next year, when all the highly-hyped kids are ready to join the club.
Ultimately, Murray will have a difficult call to make, but Zadorov has acquitted himself well so far this year and looks like he could handle top-four minutes. He should not only stick around, but Murray should give some of Benoit and Meszaros’ minutes to the youngster. Let him grow as a player. The only way he’ll do that is with opportunity. Those two guys have shown that they aren’t up to snuff and they aren’t in the future plans for the Sabres.
With one more game to go, it’s almost time for Murray to make his decision. No pressure, either: the impact could only affect the development of one of the best prospects in the system.
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When not inanely bantering about the Sabres, Ryan Womeldorf can be found here and at TwoPadStack.net talking all things hockey. He's usually got a lot to say, but sadly most of it is wrong. If you have any questions, feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org