Photo credit:© Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Analyzing Nikita Zadorov’s potential as a top-four defender the Vancouver Canucks
2 months ago
It’s just one game into Nikita Zadorov’s tenure with the Vancouver Canucks, so nobody should be jumping to any conclusions quite yet. But, at the very least, we can say “so far, so good.” Zadorov and the Canucks defeated his former team, the Calgary Flames, to the tune of 4-3 on Saturday night, with Zadorov himself picking up an assist on the game-winning (empty net) goal.
It’s quite clear that Zadorov played a role in Saturday’s victory. But was it a top-four role? That’s complicated.
Zadorov’s 17:35 in ice-time ranked eighth among Canucks skaters and fifth among defenders, behind Quinn Hughes (22:40), Tyler Myers (22:01), Filip Hronek (21:31), and Ian Cole (17:43). Then came Zadorov and Noah Juulsen (16:10).
So, by that very basic measure, Zadorov was the 5D on the depth chart for at least Game One of his tenure. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Measure by just even-strength ice-time, and Zadorov’s 13:37 EV minutes have him fifth overall and fourth among defenders.
That’s arguably a top-four performance, then. Regardless, there was an obvious gap in the level of responsibility given to the trio of Hughes, Hronek, and Myers on Saturday versus that given to the trio of Zadorov, Cole, and Juulsen.
So, the answer is complicated, but then drawing a concrete conclusion out of a single-game performance was always a fool’s quest. The real question we should be asking is whether Zadorov can be a top-four defender in the long-term for the Vancouver Canucks.
That answer is also complicated, but at least we’ve got more evidence available to base it upon.
Let’s begin with a season-by-season tour of Zadorov’s career to this point, and more specifically where he landed on the team ice-time chart in each campaign.
As a 19-year-old rookie with the Buffalo Sabres in 2014/15, Zadorov played an average of 17:42 per game, ranking him tenth on the Buffalo blueline. But that was a strange season full of partial performances by a rotating cast of Sabres. By total ice-time, Zadorov landed sixth on the list.
The next year, a sophomore Zadorov found himself traded to the Colorado Avalanche for the 2015/16 season, but not having moved much up the depth chart. His 16:56 in average ice-time ranked fifth among Avalanche defenders, and it’s worth noting that injuries kept Zadorov out of all but 22 games.
The following two seasons would see some improvement in his deployment. In 2016/17, Zadorov’s 19:02 in average ice-time ranked fifth on the Colorado blueline, and in 2017/18 his 19:28 through 77 games ranked fourth. That’s the highest average ice-time across a single season in Zadorov’s career to date, and it’s the first time he could be said to have truly filled the role of a top-four defender.
The Avalanche went 43-30-9 that year, for the record.
The Avalanche went 43-30-9 that year, for the record.
The continued evolution of Colorado into a contender, however, had the adverse effect of reducing Zadorov’s role. In 2018/19, he was back down to 17:12 a night and fifth place on the chart, and in 2019/20 it was 17:46 and fifth place.
Then, it was off to the Chicago Blackhawks.
There, on a much worse team in a COVID-shortened season, Zadorov played an average of 19:12 a night, good for third place on the Chicago blueline behind Duncan Keith and Connor Murphy. Don’t get too excited by that, however, as our old pal Riley Stillman was playing an average of 18:13 on the same D corps.
A move to Calgary followed, and two straight seasons of non-top-four deployment. In 2021/22, Zadorov played an average of just 16:55, some of the lowest minutes of his career and only good for seventh place on the Flames blueline.
That improved to an average of 18:41 and fifth place in 2022/23. Which brings us neatly enough to the modern day and Zadorov’s arrival in Vancouver.
And there we have it. Throughout his 11 year in the NHL, Zadorov has played a season-long top-four role on a blueline approximately twice: once as a 22-year-old for a Colorado Avalanche team on the rise, and again as a 25-year-old on a Chicago Blackhawks team that really didn’t have much better choice.
All of which leaves plenty of reasonable doubt about the 28-year-old Zadorov playing a top-four role in the long-term for the Vancouver Canucks.
Reasonable doubt, perhaps, but not certainty.
Flames fans will attest that coach Darryl Sutter had a demonstrably positive effect on Zadorov’s play as a defender. Sutter coached Zadorov in both of his full campaigns with the Flames, and over the course of those two years Zadorov saw his average ice-time rise by almost two minutes per night and his importance to the team rise in concert.
There was no realistic way that Zadorov was going to crack a top-four of Rasmus Andersson, Mackenzie Weegar, Chris Tanev, and Noah Hanifin. But under Sutter, he got as close as possible, and played a quality of hockey that wouldn’t be out of place a little higher up the chart.
Things were not going nearly so well in 2023/24 under new coach Ryan Huska. But Huska isn’t Zadorov’s coach anymore. It’s Rick Tocchet, now, and Tocchet has a coaching profile that is not entirely dissimilar to Sutter’s: big on personal accountability and responsibility.
For a player like Zadorov, who is often described as having more tools than toolbox, the demanding approach makes sense. And Tocchet also has two legendary NHL defenders on his coaching staff that can each impart a particular kind of wisdom unto Zadorov: fellow Russian Sergei Gonchar and fellow hard-nosed battler Adam Foote.
But it’s an uphill battle, all the same. Zadorov’s personal history plainly defines him as a rock-solid 5D. One who can play further up in the lineup when required, sure. But also one whom NHL coaches have consistently found the need to slide down onto their bottom pairing whenever possible, and whenever other reasonable top-four options are available.
To expect Zadorov to become an every-night, go-to top-four option for the Vancouver Canucks, at the age of 28 and a decade into his NHL career, might be a bridge too far.
But there is some small slivers of hope.
The whole time Zadorov was stuck down below a strong quartet of other defenders in Calgary, he was absolutely thriving in the 5D role. We’re talking Corsis of 59.16% in 2021/22, 59.92% in 2022/23, and 55.94% this season prior to the trade. Those aren’t just strong numbers, they’re the kind of numbers that strongly indicate someone who should be able to handle a tougher workload. In other words, they might just be a sign of Zadorov having improved his play in Calgary to top-four quality without having been given top-four opportunity.
Those advanced stats are consistent across the board, too.
There’s also the Tocchet Effect to consider. If we go back to the ice-time totals from Saturday night, we’ll see Myers way up near the top at a whopping 22:01. This, in the midst of Myers’ best season as a Canuck. Myers may have played minutes like that in Vancouver before, but he’s never played them quite so well, and most will attribute that success directly to Tocchet’s impact.
Many have already noted the demographic and stylistic similarities in Myers and Zadorov. Both are enormous. Both have an excessive amount of reach and wingspan. Both move their feet impressively well for people their size, and for NHL defenders in general.
But both are also prone to boneheaded play-reads, stunning turnovers, and the sorts of gaffes that make fans hurl their television remotes across the room in frustration.
If Tocchet (and Foote and Gonchar and the rest of the coaching staff) can have as positive an impact on Zadorov as they have had on Myers, who knows what the end result might be? At the very least, Zadorov is starting out on a stronger foot. Prior to this season, Myers was starting to look like a replacement-level NHLer. Prior to this season, Zadorov was looking like someone who had mastered the 5D role and might be ready for something more.
It goes without saying that Zadorov playing like a genuine top-four talent in Vancouver would be a badly-needed coup for the Canucks. Which is not to say that he needs to do so in order to make a positive impact. Just being that same, high-quality, physically-active bottom pairing talent in Vancouver will go a long way toward improving the overall blueline.
But Zadorov being a top-four D in Vancouver would go even further, and that outcome still seems at least within the realm of possibility if all goes as well as it can.
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