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The curious case of Nikita Zadorov

He’s not the best but he’s also not the worst.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Nikita Zadorov shoots the puck against the Tampa Bay Lightning
Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Nikita Zadorov, and the Blackhawks’ relationship to him — both in terms of fans and the current front office — is a complicated one. He already has his detractors in Chicago and he has his supporters.

Zadorov is almost a typical defensive defenseman, at least in build. The team roster bills him at 6-foot-6, 236 pounds, which is big enough to make sure the hits he dishes out — and he hit a lot of people last season, throwing 190 hits in 55 games — hurt.

But Zadorov doesn’t have speed in his skating, so when he goes for a hit, he’s often separating himself from the play, and he isn’t as effective at separating the opposing player from the puck when throwing hits as one would like — something we used to see in a player like Andrew Shaw.

Zadorov doesn’t really pass the eye test, in terms of his defense. He seems frequently out of position and while the Blackhawks’ younger defenseman could use more defensive help, he doesn’t seem to be the best at providing it.

Zadorov is also a black hole offensively. With just one goal (his lowest total since ‘16-17) and eight points (lowest since ‘15-16), Zadorov added almost nothing in terms of offensive production. That’s surely part of the reason Zadorov was worth minus-2.2 offensive goals above replacement in 2021 and minus-2.6 expected.

Zadorov saw almost all of his offensive metrics break down in 2021. His shooting percentage fell from 6.15 percent last season to 1.92 percent, his shots per 60 rate fell from 3.43 to 2.95, his points per 60 fall from 0.69 to 0.45. In summary, Zadorov may have been the Blackhawks’ worst offensive option on the blue line.

And yet his defense is good, it just perhaps isn’t appropriate for Jeremy Colliton’s system (though whose abilities do actually fit in Colliton’s system remains to be determined). Zadorov was worth 5.7 even-strength defensive GAR and 5.2 expected. Those are inarguably good numbers.

Zadorov, while on ice at 5-on-5, allowed just 1.93 goals per 60, the second-lowest number of his career. The Blackhawks scored more goals with Zadorov on the ice than they gave up, something that cannot be said about every skater in Chicago in recent seasons. But again, how much of that is due to Zadorov? Especially considering his improved PDO over last season, going from a 1.004 mark to 1.018.

The Blackhawks don’t use Zadorov in the ways the Avalanche did, as Colorado somewhat shielded Zadorov and that led to better shot metrics. Across the board, Zadorov’s possession numbers fell in 2021, including a drop from a 48.54 expected goal share to 44.9. That coincided with a drop from a 41.36 offensive zone start percentage to 34.01, however.

Zadorov, when used appropriately and put with the correct partner, can be worth something to a team. The problem is, the Blackhawks aren’t using him appropriately or with the correct partner. They also traded Brandon Saad, who killed it with Colorado in the playoffs, not to do those things with Zadorov.

The Blackhawks face a conundrum with Zadorov. Now a restricted free agent, Zadorov has arbitration rights, and as a veteran defenseman at just 26, that could lead to an inflated number from the arbitrator.

At the same time, bringing back Zadorov at a time when other players who could be worth more on the Blackhawks’ blue line are supposed to be coming along could also hurt development. Alex Vlasic and Alec Regula are both somewhat in the Zadorov model, and may fit with the Blackhawks’ future blue line plans more easily (and more cheaply).

With the right team, in the right situation, Zadorov could excel. The Blackhawks just don’t seem to be either, at least right now. Keeping Zadorov in a situation where he’s not being used as well as he could be could drive down asset value and Zadorov should likely not be in the Blackhawks’ long-term plans.

Doing a sign-and-trade with a contender in need of a defenseman or a team in need of more defensive support could be the best idea for both sides.