BUFFALO – Instead of walking into the dressing room following a long skate Tuesday morning, struggling Sabres winger Chris Stewart veered off and undressed somewhere else.
A few minutes later, a staff member wheeled in Stewart’s equipment on a shopping cart and placed it in his locker.
Clearly, Stewart, a healthy scratch for the Sabres’ 1-0 win against the Los Angeles Kings, wasn’t in the mood to discuss his benching.
“All players have to play to the best of their ability,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said inside the First Niagara Center. “If not, there’s somebody else that will take their place.”
Patrick Kaleta, a scratch last game, replaced Stewart.
Less than two weeks ago, Stewart appeared to turn a corner. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound power forward scored two nifty breakaway goals during a three-game stretch, just his second and third goals this season.
But Stewart has done little since then, so Nolan scratched him for the first time this season.
What has happened to Stewart? The former first-rounder has two 28-goal seasons on his resume. He has three goals in his last 47 games, however.
“He needs to play the way he can,” Nolan said. “He’s a big, powerful forward. Powerful forwards can’t be playing a soft game. You play a soft game, it doesn’t fit into their makeup. So we need him playing the way he can, similar to Marcus Foligno. We sat him earlier this year. So hopefully it’ll be a good message to him to sit back and watch and see what he’s missing.”
Stewart, a key piece in the Ryan Miller trade with St. Louis, has four points and a minus-11 rating in 27 games this season. Rumors are swirling the Sabres will trade Stewart, an unrestricted free agent following the season. Nolan benched him for part of Thursday’s 5-0 loss in Tampa Bay.
Nolan said he hadn’t spoken to Stewart about the scratch.
Naturally, Russia recently put Sabres defenseman Nikita Zadorov on its preliminary roster for the upcoming world junior championship. The country has nothing to lose by adding the 19-year-old’s name.
The Sabres, of course, can keep Zadorov if they want.
But would they actually let Zadorov, who skates more than 20 minutes some nights beside Rasmus Ristolainen, join his country for the tournament?
“I just read it for the first time myself that he was on the list,” Nolan said Tuesday morning. “You can’t blame Russia for putting him on the list. But it one of those things we never even discussed.”
The chances of Zadorov leaving the Sabres for a few weeks are slim. They began Tuesday 7-8-1 with him and 2-8-1 when he’s scratched.
Zadorov, who began playing regularly just five weeks ago, would be happy with either team.
“I would like to stay here and play here because it’s NHL, best league in the world,” Zadorov said. “I have ice time, I’m playing a lot. They trust me on the ice.”
He added: “Other way, I love my country. I’m ready to go play for my country any time. It’s not my decision. It doesn’t matter what I want.”
Zadorov left his junior club last season to play for Russia.
“It was fun,” he said. “World junior every time is fun.”
Nolan knows the tournament can be beneficial.
“When you’re a teenager, you don’t get those teenage years back,” he said.
Ristolainen left Rochester last year and scored the gold-medal winning goal for Finland.
The experience changed his career.
“You look at his development from that point on to coming back this year, he was almost like a totally different player when he came to camp,” Nolan said. “He came with his shoulders up a little bit more, a little bit more swagger to his walk. He didn’t come here hoping to play on our team; he came here knowing he was going to play on our team.”
The Sabres let center prospect Mikhail Grigorenko leave the NHL to play for Russia last season. Grigorenko was a regular scratch back then, however. The Sabres desperately wanted him to get playing time somewhere.
Three weeks in, Sabres center Zemgus Girgensons remains the leading vote-getter for the 2015 NHL All-Star Game, the league announced Tuesday. But get this: Girgensons added more than 400,000 votes in the last week. The 20-year-old has a whopping 803,805 votes.
According to the NHL, nearly 82 percent of the votes have come from Girgensons’ native Latvia. Chicago star Patrick Kane is second in voting with a distant 375,758 votes.
Nolan faced his son, Jordan, a Kings winger, for the first time ever Oct. 23 in Los Angeles.
“Part of me was going, ‘Skate by him, Jordan’ or, ‘Shoot,’” Ted Nolan said. “But then, all of a sudden, you realize he’s on the other team. So it’s one of those things where you have mixed emotions, for sure.”
The Sabres also scratched defenseman Tyson Strachan (undisclosed injury) for the second straight game.
“We thought he’d be a little bit better,” Nolan said.