Zadorov hitting his stride with the Knights

By Jason Menard

Nikita Zadorov - London Knights

Photo: London Knights defenseman and 2013 draft prospect Nikita Zadorov is preparing for his team's OHL Conference Championship series with Plymouth (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

“La Femme Nikita” is the story of a secret assassin who works in the shadows. Le “blueliner” Nikita, London Knights' Nikita Zadorov, has no such anonymity. After all, at 6’7” with a propensity for big hits and a big shot, it’s hard to miss the Russian defenseman.

And scouts have noticed. Zadorov was most-recently ranked sixth overall by ISS Hockey and was listed among the OHL’s top-10 prospects by Central Scouting.

“[In North America], it’s a very aggressive game; it’s very fast,” Zadorov said. ““I love playing in the smaller rink. I’m a bigger guy, I love the big hit, and I love playing aggressively.

“I think I play better here.”

In 63 regular season games, Zadorov scored six goals and added 19 assists. He racked up 54 minutes in penalties and finished a team-high (and tied for ninth in the OHL) +33.

Knights assistant coach Dylan Hunter said Zadorov’s diverse skill set has been an incredible asset for the team.

“He’s an exceptional talent. His tools are amazing for a guy that’s 6’7” [listed at 6’5”]. I’d say the only negative thing about him is that he tried to make that big hit every time, which we liked — but sometimes there’s a place for it,” Hunter said. “He’s now doing a very good job knowing when that place is. At the beginning of the year, I remember that he came in wanting 200 hits, which is good to see for someone with his talent.

“Most guys with his talent just want to come in and score goals, but he has that rough side of his game. He really enjoys it.”

One of the biggest challenges for foreign-born players is acclimatizing to the North American game. Zadorov’s transition has been relatively smooth thanks to the in-season presence of Olli Maatta and the off-season guidance of former Knight, Vladimir Namestnikov. And he hasn’t been missing the comforts of home because home came overseas with him.

“I’m not missing the food,” Zadorov said. “We have a Russian store here. They provide Russian food so I can have Russian meals — and I live with my mom.”

Zadorov’s father and brother have remained in Russia, but the maternal presence has been a boon for his transition, Hunter added.

“He’s only a 17-year-old guy. It’s tough enough for a guy from Sault Ste. Marie or Thunder Bay to come down here, I can’t imagine what’s it’s like to come overseas,” he said. “So having her there is a big help for him. She’s a great lady and she takes good care of him.”

And leaning on the experience of last year’s Finnish import Maatta has been a natural progression, Hunter added.

“It’s something we encouraged, but it happened organically,” he said. “Olli could be a captain. He’s a great guy. Often the guys that come over from Europe are in their shells a bit but he’s stepped up, worked with him after practice, and really showed him the ropes.”

This became additionally important after Zadorov’s first OHL game when he took on Erie’s heavyweight Johnny McGuire — and held his own. “After the McGuire fight, I said, ‘Olli, you go show him who’s who!’” Hunter added, laughing.

Zadorov explained there have been some things to get used to.

“It’s been a big difference because I’ve changed language, it’s a different culture, but it hasn’t been too hard because my family is here,” he said. “ I do miss my friends a little bit, but we talk on Skype everyday.”

Hunter added that the team has tried to facilitate Zadorov’s transition — both on and off the ice.

“We have a Russian tutor teaching him English. She’s from Western,” Hunter said. “We’ve got 20 guys here that are great guys — and he’s a really good kid. Very good-natured. I thought with having those guys around to get along with, it can really help you adjust.

“I think the biggest adjustment for him was on the ice, not playing on an Olympic-sized rink. It’s a tougher adjustment than most people give you credit for.”

After playing for CSKA’s junior squad last season, Zadorov was drafted fourth overall by the KHL franchise in order to protect his rights. He was selected ninth overall by the Knights in the CHL Import Draft and there was no question as to where the Moscow-born blueliner would play.

“I came to London because I want to play in the NHL,” he said. “It’s my dream and playing in the OHL is the best way to get there.

“It’s a great organization; great team… a great coach and manager. I think London’s like a little NHL team.”

Zadorov said that he’s well aware of the attention he’s garnered and is comfortable with the presence of scouts in the crowd. He’s not sure how he can handle the pressure — he just does.

“I don’t know — that’s a tough question,” he said. “A lot of it is that I just love to play hockey — whether I play in Russia or Canada, I just love to play.

“Oh, I know [there are scouts]. I’m not nervous I play every day — it’s just normal.”

Zadorov points to players like Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson and Philadelphia’s Chris Pronger as the players he likes to watch. “I like Pronger. He has a similar style of game,” he said.

Hunter cautions against making comparisons, but can see elements of various players’ games in his young blueliner.

“I can see that [Karlsson element]. He’s a heady guy who makes great plays,” he said. “Nikita’s not going to toe-drag like Karlsson, but he’ll make those good plays, make that saucer pass when he needs to. His hitting and roughness will really add an extra dimension to him.

“I just think he’s going to be a great two-way guy. I mean, you’d hate to make any comparisons to a guy like [Zdeno] Chara — you never want to do something like that, but… something like that. You know, a big, bruising defensive guy that you hate to play against who can also put the puck in the net.”

Hunter said it’s hard to project where Zadorov will fit in as his game continues to develop.

“It’s tough to say. In the NHL he’s a top-four guy all-day long, but it’s tough to say who’s going to be offensive and who’s not,” Hunter explained. “I wouldn’t say he’s pure offensive — I could see him on the power-play; he’s got a shot, he’s got a cannon. His hands are great, but he’s not going to be a Letang.

“For a big man, he can turn on a dime and he’s gone. In the NHL, that first step and that first pass? It’s huge. He’s got it — he’s got it natural.”

Zadorov said he wants to work on “everything” to get better. He said he enjoys working in the gym, trying to add muscle to his already 225-pound frame. Hunter added that focusing on his own end is key.

“Defense will get you to the NHL and the offensive will come on its own,” Hunter explained. “I just think that a lot of defensemen going into their draft year need to clean up their work in the defensive zone.

“You know how with a forward we say you can never be fast enough? Well, for a d-man you can never focus on the defensive zone enough.”

Growing up, Zadorov was a fan of the Vancouver Canucks — partly due to the presence of Pavel Bure. But while he has that affinity for the Canucks, Zadorov’s goal is to be someone’s first choice.

“I want to be drafted in the first round. That’s my dream,” he said. “To be the first pick of an NHL team? That’s good. I’m happy to go anywhere.”