BUFFALO – Sometimes you focus so much on the future, Sabres coach Ted Nolan said, the present can easily be forgotten about.
When the rebuilding Sabres surround Tyler Ennis with better talent in the coming years, the slick winger could become one of the NHL’s elite talents.
But right now, the 25-year-old, who will likely miss tonight’s game with an upper-body injury, is a special player. The former first-round pick is often the Sabres’ only offensive threat.
“He’s certainly a gift to watch,” Nolan said Friday inside the First Niagara Center.
Ennis has 19 goals of the Sabres’ 133 goals (14.3 percent) and 42 points in 72 games.
“I think he’s been having a sensational year,” Nolan said. “In particular, the last 10 games or so, his play has gone up another level. Somebody asked me, ‘What’s the ceiling on this kid?’ I’m not too sure what it is, but it’s going to be magnificent to watch. …
“He’s going to get better and better. When I first got here last year, you could tell what kind of player he was. He got a little bit better. This year, he’s even taken it to another level, so the future looks very, very bright.”
Ennis left Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Coyotes after the second period. Nolan sounded concerned after game, but Ennis accompanied the Sabres to Colorado, where they play the Avalanche tonight. He could return Monday when they face Arizona again.
“He’s feeling a lot better,” Nolan said.
Sabres captain Brian Gionta moved up and replaced Ennis on the right wing beside center Johan Larsson and Matt Moulson.
“A lot of people lose sight that he’s still a young player in his career and he’s going to develop and grow into that,” Gionta said about Ennis. “You look at the way he plays, he’s pretty slick. He darts in and out with the puck. He’s pretty elusive. It’s tough to defend.”
The Sabres recalled forward Tim Schaller before they left Friday.
In Thursday’s 4-3 loss, Sabres defenseman Nikita Zadorov was benched, skating only nine minutes, 46 seconds.
“Maybe 10 minutes too much,” Nolan said.
Expect the 19-year-old rookie to be scratched tonight. Nolan has clearly grown tired of the Russian’s poor work habits.
“When you’re going for certain things, the expectations and what you have to do has to be a certain level, and if you don’t do it, you’re not going to get better, I don’t care who you are,” Nolan said. “You look at Tyler Ennis, why he’s getting better, because he works at it. (Brian) Gionta, why he’s lasted 14 years and why he’s played the way he’s been, because he’s works at it.
“This is a perfect example for a young kid like Nikita. He’s got to work on his game to get better. He just can’t hope and rely on talent to get there.”
Zadorov, the No. 16 pick in 2013, has showcased some glimpses of future stardom in between bouts of immaturity this season.
He was suspended in January for missing a flight back from the Dominican Republic following the NHL All-Star break and benched in February for oversleeping and missing a team meeting.
Nolan and his staff worked with Zadorov to develop strong habits as he sat out early in the season. He was often the first player on the ice then. When Zadorov finally earned regular duty, he formed a strong tandem with Rasmus Ristolainen, the youngster picked eight spots before him.
“His was working for it, then all of a sudden his play took off,” Nolan said. “Then all of a sudden you get to play and you forget what got you there.”
Nolan wants Zadorov to practice better.
“He just has to learn to do that,” he said. “By no means do you say he’s not going to get there. But sometimes it takes a little while.”
Zadorov can play in the AHL next season, something Nolan believes “won’t hurt” him.
Sabres goalie Chad Johnson, out since hurting his ankle hours before his scheduled debut March 6, skated Friday and hopes to play again this season.
Johnson, who was acquired March 2 from the New York Islanders, felt a pop in his ankle after facing his last shot that morning.
“It was frustrating,” he said. “I wanted to come here and make an impression and play in games and help this team win. … I knew it wasn’t good.”
Goalie Anders Lindback will start tonight, Nolan said. Matt Hackett, who made 38 saves on Thursday, feels fine. Hackett, less than a year removed from major knee surgery, has been feeling sore after games. He also hurt his arm against Arizona, although he stayed in the game.