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London Knights double down defensively: Nikita Zadorov returns from NHL in wake of Zach Bell trade

Zadorov would be crucial to London's Memorial Cup ambitions (AP)

That was a fun nine weeks of pretending the London Knights might struggle to run with the big dogs in the OHL's Western Conference.

In one fell swoop, or in the space of one news cycle, the MasterCard Memorial Cup hosts' defence corps became bigger and somewhat nastier. First, in deference to Ted Nolan, the Buffalo Sabres put their youth movement on hiatus, which means 6-foot-5, 230-pound defender Nikita Zadorov will return to the Knights.

Also, London made it 3-for-3 at obtaining coveted overage defencemen, trading with North Bay to get the rights to four-year Battalion stalwart Zach Bell. The 20-year-old Bell is on a minor-league contract with the AHL's St. John's Ice Caps but is not actually playing there, instead toiling in the ECHL.

Consider the band put back together?

The fact of the matter is London parted with a potential core defenceman for next season by sending Liberati east to North Bay.

From Ryan Pyette:

Liberati, an 18-year-old Vancouver Canucks draft pick, has four points and a plus-5 rating in 22 games of his second OHL season.

The Knights now have three overage defencemen – Bell, Brady Austin, Alex Basso – and a fourth 20-year-old in tough guy Paxton Leroux. The OHL permits only three overagers to dress per game.

Memorial Cup host London started this season with one of the youngest defence corps in the league. Now, they have become one of the oldest with talk still swirling that Buffalo first-rounder Nikita Zadorov could be returned to the Knights by the Sabres. (London Free Press)

Zadorov's rise from Russian rookie to clocking 20-minute nights in Buffalo in a space of 12 months testified for his high ceiling, but it almost seemed too good to be true. An 18-year-old can almost always use more seasoning in major junior. It's not about showing flashes of potential in October, but where the player will be by the 40-game midpoint of the NHL season.

The biggest difference between the 2011-12 Knights, who came within one goal of a Memorial Cup win, and the '12-13 iteration that couldn't keep up with the other two league champions in Saskatoon, was the lack of a mammoth, mature shutdown defender. London had such a beast with 6-foot-7 Jarred Tinordi in '12; it's hoped Zadorov will develop as such this season, with a dollop of offensive flair thrown in.

The Nolan quote below about the teenagers who have suited up for Buffalo pretty much says it all. From John Vogl:

“I didn’t realize how young they really were and the positions that they’re in and the capabilities of what they can do besides playing here. There’s some maneuvering room we can do here.” (Buffalo News)

Bell signed in St. John's after serving notice that he preferred to play for a contender in his overage season rather than join the Battalion, who have been a one- or two-round playoff team since their Matt Duchene/Cody Hodgson salad days in 2009. It appears the defender known as Big Country will get that wish.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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