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Nikita Zadorov looked like an overpayment waiting to happen, but the Canucks wound up underpaying for him

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Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
6 months ago
Nikita Zadorov is (finally) a Vancouver Canuck.
It’s been a relatively open secret that the Canucks have been interested in Zadorov for some time, and definitely since his trade request out of Calgary went public earlier in the year.
But if one was paying attention to the local mediasphere, one might have noticed that the bloggers, writers, and pundits who cover the team were significantly less enthused about the prospect of trading for the enormous defender. (Including this author).
Cut to today, and you won’t see anyone in the media criticizing the trade that was made.
What gives?
Did everyone suddenly change their mind on Zadorov? Is this a case of hypocrisy? Wishy-washiness?
Not really.
It’s just that, for a multitude of reasons that we’re about to get into, Zadorov had the look of an overpayment waiting to happen. It wasn’t that folks didn’t think he was a good player, or someone who could make a difference on the Canucks, or someone not worth trading for in a vacuum. It’s that the general expectation was that Zadorov would ultimately cost more than he was worth.
And then GM Patrik Allvin and Co. picked him up for a 2024 fifth round pick and a 2026 third rounder. Which isn’t just not an overpayment, but seems to be something of an underpayment.
Hence the apparent swing of opinions on Zadorov post-trade.
But let’s get into that first part. Why were so many so worried that Zadorov was going to cost something in the ballpark of a first or second round pick?
It’s always the case that player value is subjective, especially in the context of the leaguewide market. But it’s also true that NHL GMs tend to be fairly similar and fairly similar-thinking individuals, and thus there are certain types of players that GMs tend to value more than others — and, oftentimes, overvalue.
First and definitely foremost is the size. There’s a strong belief out there, and it’s backed up with plenty of evidence, that larger bluelines tend to perform better, especially in the postseason. Zadorov is about as large as they come. At 6’6”, Zadorov is tied for seventh place on the NHL height rankings. At 248 pounds, he’s the second heaviest player in the league, trailing just Jamie Oleksiak.
It’s also generally important that a player with size also “know how to use it.” Zadorov, to put it mildly, knows how to use his size.
If Zadorov isn’t the best purveyor of giant-sized open-ice checks in the league, he’s got to be pretty darn close.
Part of the reason that Zadorov is so successful at blowing people up is that he’s a shockingly good skater. Not just your standard “good for his size,” either. Zadorov’s skating is often described as bordering on elite, especially when it comes to his straight-line speed. And when that straight-line speed collides with a human being, watch out.
Zadorov can also use his size and accompanying attitude to clear the crease and battle it out in the corner. And to chuck knuckles when the time comes. It also gives him a long reach for some effective sweeping pokechecks, but that’s less exciting to talk about.
Physicality? It’s not just a strength for Zadorov, it’s a way of life. And NHL GMs always appreciate that pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. Not just Brian Burke!
Wayne Gretzky taught us all long ago that assists are just as important as goals. And that’s true, sure, but goals still seem to be more of a draw when it comes to player valuation, and that’s extra true when it’s a blueliner racking up the tallies.
Last season, Zadorov’s 14 even-strength goals were tied for second-most for defenders in the entire NHL behind Erik Karlsson. Zadorov’s big shot and ability to skate the puck into the zone in a hurry are important factors here, but it’s the raw totals that really stick out.
Which brings us back to our topic of overpayment. Those 14 goals were great, and represented a goals-per-game rate of 0.17. Which is more than double Zadorov’s career average scoring rate, otherwise.
We’ve described Zadorov as that GM-friendly combination of the big S’s: size, skating, shot. He’s also versatile enough to player on his off-side with relative ease, which means he gets a little bit of that RHD boost in value despite being a LHD. But that only explains why we think Zadorov might be a costly acquisition, and not why so many thought he’d be an overpayment, specifically.
To understand that, we have to briefly get into a few of the realities in Zadorov’s game.
For one, Zadorov is not quite someone who can be described as a de facto top-four defender. He’s thus far averaged a hair over 18 minutes a night in his career, which is not top-four minutes. Zadorov has never cracked a 20-minute average over a full season. That’s what we might call 5D minutes and, indeed, that’s about where Zadorov has typically found himself on various depth charts. It’s where he was in Calgary this year, behind all of Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev, Mackenzie Weegar, and Rasmus Andersson in terms of ice-time and importance.
And, hey, 5D are valuable, and Zadorov has all the makings of a particularly good one. We’re not even entirely convinced that he can’t be a top-four defender under head coach Rick Tocchet (and we’ve got a piece coming on that very subject soon).
But it is definitely fair to say that Zadorov is not a proven top-four defender, and thus it probably would not have been a good idea to pay a top-four price for him. But that sure looked like a distinct possibility a day or two ago!
Zadorov is also, traditionally, an error-prone defender in much the same way as his fellow giant, Tyler Myers. Zadorov’s focus and mental game can wander, and he’s fairly well-known for making those same unignorable gaffes with which Myers has long frustrated Canucks fans. His positioning and placement in his own zone can, similarly, occasionally become lost to him.
He’s a player with some warts to his game, is what we’re saying.
He’s also a pending UFA, and there will have to be a long-term discussion about what an extension might look like before we truly get off the topic of overpaying Zadorov (again, more on that topic coming soon).
So, you’ve got a player with question marks about his potential spot on the depth chart, with his consistency, and with his long-term fit. A player coming off a career season, at that. Never mind that this is the Canucks we are talking about, an organization that is just coming out of a decade of constant overpayments and asset mismanagement. We’re sure that anyone reading this can see why so many thought we were deep within “player that is about to have too many assets spent on them” territory.
And then the Canucks turned around and acquired him for a fifth and a far-flung future third.
The story on how they accomplished this is already out, and it really does come down to cap management. Zadorov’s on the books for a modest and 5D-appropriate $3.75 million, but cap space has never been tighter in the NHL, and all other teams interested in his services were unable to fit him without having Calgary retain.
The Canucks also would have been in that boat, but they had already pulled off a much quieter coup by flipping Anthony Beauvillier with no retention to the Chicago Blackhawks, despite Beauvillier already having been off to a dreadful start.
As such, the Canucks essentially swapped out a superfluous and underperforming pending UFA for one that truly fits the team’s needs. They even managed to save $400K against the cap in doing so, and all for an incredibly low price.
There’s just no way to paint the moves made by Allvin and Co. this week as anything less than a major win for the Canucks franchise.
Which is something we could all get used to.

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