Jim Hiller on Nikita Zaitsev: “Impressed with his focus and compete level in practice”


What were your first impressions of Matthews, and when do you think he might play a preseason game?

Jim Hiller: Well, first impressions – I think I watched him in the World Cup like everybody else did. That was the first time I really got to see him in a game. I was really impressed there. The whole practice he was with the older group. There were a lot of veterans in that second practice. I thought the pace was great, and I think that he did well in the practice, too.

Do you know when he might play?

Hiller: I don’t know that yet.

Did the expectations change for him at all, do you think, given how he did in the World Cup and how he more than held his own at such a high level?

Hiller: I don’t think so. He’s just getting started. We have to be aware of that. He hasn’t played an NHL game yet. The World Cup was a great event, but he’ll get in here with his teammates, he’ll get started, he’ll have some ups and downs. We’ll watch him. It’s quite a process, as you know. Without playing a game yet, I don’t think anybody could have accurate expectations of him.

Is it important to surround him with veterans and put him in that position to succeed, but he looks like he’s going to make those guys better.

Hiller: I thought so. That second group that practiced today was an older group. I thought the pace was great and the skill was great. It wasn’t Auston and it wasn’t Marner; it was the whole group. I thought they all pushed each other. The young guys that were in the group kept up just fine.

What do you like about the possible line combination there with JVR and Leo?

Hiller: We just threw some lines together for practice, guys. There was not a lot of thought that went into the lines for practice. I wouldn’t read too much into those. I just think it was great to have everybody here. That was the other thing. Bringing those guys and getting the team together – they were all happy to see each other and get on the ice. I thought they worked; it was really competitive there at the end with the 2 on 2 and all that stuff. A great day for us.

Andersen was saying he’s day to day. Do you expect to see him in game action within the next week or so?

Hiller: I don’t know. He’s feeling better. That’s what we like. You saw him in the practice; he did great. Beyond that, I can’t comment.

The World Cup guys are back. Is there the vibe now that this is real now or that the whole team is together, type of thing?

Hiller: I would say so, for sure. Those are big, strong men. They’re important players. Morgan had a great World Cup. The backend with Zaitsev and Morgan, and [Polak] is around. It just felt like how we left off last season. The guys are back, and I think everybody appreciated that.

Nikita is only 24. He’ll be 25, I guess, next month. Seven years of pro hockey already under his belt. Will that help him transition to North America, do you think?

Hiller: I think so, for sure. In the practice today, you saw him – he had a similar demeanour to Polak, where he was focused, and if you get around him he’s going to give you a whack with the stick. He was dialled in. You can see that. The KHL is a good league. He’s been playing in it a long time. I was really impressed with his focus and his compete level today in this practice.

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