Colorado Avalanche: Emergence of Defenseman Nikita Zadorov

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18: Nikita Zadorov
DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18: Nikita Zadorov /

The Colorado Avalanche have been getting consistent play from defenseman Nikita Zadorov, hopefully heralding that he’s coming into his own as an eventual top pairing player.

Colorado Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov is starting to be the player Avs Nation had been hoping for since the team acquired him in the 2015 Ryan O’Reilly trade.

Zadorov has always been an up and down player. The Buffalo Sabres drafted him in the first round, 15th overall, because the Russian appears to have such potential. He’s big — 6-foot-5, 230 pounds. Naturally, with that size, he plays a physical game, and that sometimes gets him in trouble. He’s been known to get out of position to make a big hit or take a penalty at just the wrong time.

That said, he’s also a fantastic skater who can move up the ice with speed. He’s a good puck-mover as well as the player who will make opponents flinch when he moves in their direction — see above.

I once likened Nikita Zadorov to a wild mustang — filled with so much power and energy, but untamed. Well, it looks like the Colorado Avalanche are finally domesticating the big Russian.

This season didn’t have an auspicious beginning for Big Z. For some reason the team was dickering with him salary-wise over what turned out to be in the neighborhood of $100,000 — a king’s ransom for the likes of me, but a pretty minor amount in the world of professional sports. Joe Sakic thought the two sides were close enough that the then-restricted free agent would show up to training camp even without a contract.

He did not. Zadorov, in fact, missed training camp. And when he did show up, his off-ice testing was apparently not up to the team’s liking. So, he spent the first part of the season occasionally being a healthy scratch.

Coach Jared Bednar said at the time of the situation:

"“We’ve got a young group of D men and some guys are still trying to prove themselves and where exactly they shake out in our lineup and what they do for us consistently. Z falls into that category for us. He’s been scratched just based on performance. We’ve liked what we’ve see from some other guys a little bit more consistently than what we’ve seen from Z so far this year.”"

Zadorov wasn’t really in step with his teammates on the ice. The errors in his game, such as making turnovers or getting out of position, became more glaring. At other times, he didn’t seem to be playing his game, the Big Z special, because he was so afraid of making a mistake that would get him benched.

Zadorov admitted in the Denver Post interview that he had been making some mistakes, but that he was working through it. He added:

"“It sucks to be in the doghouse. That’s it.”"

Zadorov as been looking better and better. He’s scored six goals this season. Unfortunately, two of them were disallowed, and one was credited to Nathan MacKinnon, but that shows you his offensive production is there.

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For you fancy stats sorts, Nikita Zadorov has a CorsiFor of 49.7%, which marks a pretty steady trajectory up throughout Z’s career — he was 47.4% last season and 45% the year before. This year he’s been getting a lot of defensive zone starts — 64.1%, to be exact. That shows you he’s got some trust from the coaching staff.

In all, Zadorov has missed five games as a healthy scratch. However, that hasn’t happened at all since November 1. What’s more, his ice time has been creeping up to the 18-19 minute territory. With the shenanigans that took out three Colorado Avalanche defensemen (Tyson Barrie to injury, Samuel Girard to concussion protocol, Erik Johnson to penalties) against the Arizona Coyotes, Z played a season-high 26:43.

Next: 3 Players Who Must Step up for Barrie

We all have a vested interest in seeing Nikita Zadorov succeed for the Colorado Avalanche. For one, he was the biggest piece of the Ryan O’Reilly trade — without Z, we got JT Compher (who is great) and AJ Greer in return.

More than that, Zadorov just has such exciting potential. He’s still only 22 years old. If he can iron out the majority of the mistakes in his game (no one’s perfect) while still staying true to his style, he could become the heir apparent to Erik Johnson as cornerstone of the blueline.

So, let’s hope Zadorov keeps trending up.