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Photo Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

Nikita Zadorov’s early season struggles paid off in the end

Entering the 2021-22 season, the Calgary Flames wanted to bolster their backend with some meat and potatoes. The Flames already had guys like Noah Hanifin, Rasmus Andersson, and Christopher Tanev to do all the other work. So, Brad Treliving went out and spent a little bit of cash, $5.7 million combined to be exact, and signed Erik Gudbranson to a contract as well as acquired monster 6’6″ 236-pound Russian defencemen Nikita Zadorov from the Chicago Blackhawks for a third-round pick. Zadorov then re-signed with the Flames just one week later on a one-year, $3.75 million contract. These two were perfect fits under Darryl Sutter, but it took a bit of time, and some healthy scratches for Zadorov to really break ground and find some traction in Calgary. While it took a moment for Zadorv to find his footing, he eventually broke out and he and Gudbranson became one of the top shutdown pairs across the entire league. It’s safe to say that the Flames ultimately got what they expected in Zadorov, and even a little bit more.

The past

Zadorov was highly touted in his junior hockey days with the London Knights as a modern two-way defenceman who had a bite to his game. He accumulated 25 points in 63 games throughout his first season in the OHL playing on a loaded team that featured the likes of Max Domi, Bo Horvat, Josh Anderson, and Olli Maatta. His shutdown role throughout the season and Knight’s Memorial Cup run, ultimately helped Zadorov raise his draft stock.

At the 2013 NHL Draft, he was selected 16th overall by the Buffalo Sabres, where he would go on to spend one entire season prior to being traded to the Colorado Avalanche in a blockbuster deal for Ryan O’Reilly. In 2015-16, Zadorov played a big role for the Avalanche’s AHL farm team, the San Antonio Rampage. That season, he registered 29 points in 52 games and was finally earned his right to a full-time roster position. In his first season in the NHL, he registered 10 points in 56 games and played out a physical role for the Avalanche.

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Over the last few seasons though, Zadorov has had trouble settling down and even spent last season with the Chicago Blackhawks, where he struggled. But, the Flames saw something in him.

The present

The Flames wanted to retool their blueline, and when they lost captain Mark Giordano to the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, they had some money now to spend. As I mentioned above, they went out and acquired Gudbranson and Zadorov, some big heavy hitters. It wasn’t just the fact that Zadorov plays a mean, nasty, physical game that made him so enticing to the Flames, it was also because he is a left-shot defender-whom they just lost in Giordano and now had a hole to fill. While Zadorov is not Giordano, he was able to slot in and change the blue line in his own way. Big, nasty, physical players still play a major role on Stanley Cup-winning teams, just ask Pat Maroon, or ask Cale Makar what he thinks about Kurtis MacDermid’s presence on the bench. My point is, that these types of defencemen and role players are still needed, and Zadorov has elevated his game to more of a two-way level this season.

Although he struggled early on and was having a hard time clicking under Sutter, something changed, and he and Gudbranson managed to turn their season’s around simultaneously and became one of the top shutdown and possession duo’s in the league. Throughout 943:40 minutes of ice time, the pairing posted a Corsi For (CF%) of 60.02% and their Offensive-Zone Faceoff percentage was 64.27%. While those are pretty solid numbers considering the defensive mindset, the Flames were able to use them effectively and efficiently. With a top-four that consisted of Hanifin, Andersson, Tanev, and young gun Oliver Kylington, there was a lot of heavy lifting already done that allowed for Zadorov and Gudbranson to flourish. Zadorov also had a career-high in points this past season, registering 22 points (4 goals, 18 assists) through 74 games. He accumulated 174 hits, and 47 shots blocked, he played his role well.

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During playoffs, Zadorov continued to be a pest on the back-end and provided the Flames with some much-needed tenacity throwing 27 hits. However, he found himself in a bit of hot water when he leveled Dallas Stars veteran Luke Glendening in what a lot of people considered to be a “headshot”. Ultimately, after a hearing, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety decided to not suspend him and deemed that the hit was “unavoidable”. That led to further tension in the series, which the Flames battled through easily. I wouldn’t want to pick a fight with Zadorov either, so it made sense why no Stars players came to Glendening’s rescue.  Throughout 12 playoff games, he registered three assists. Once again, the Flames did not sign him for his offense.

The future

Zadorov is set to become an unrestricted free agent, while he fulfilled a much-needed role for the Flames, they will not be able to afford his next contract unless Zadorov is willing to take a discount. The Flames have too many expiring contracts to take care of first, and with Zadorov making $3.75 million, his contract just wouldn’t line up considering the raises the Flames need to hand out this summer. But, the monster defender should not have any difficulty finding another home for the 2022-23 season.

2021-22 Flames player evaluations

Johnny Gaudreau | Calle Jarnkrok | Matthew Tkachuk | Trevor Lewis | Jacob Markstrom | Dillon Dube | Elias Lindholm | Chris Tanev | Adam Ruzicka | Milan Lucic | Andrew Mangiapane | Tyler Toffoli | Dan Vladar | Rasmus Andersson | Brett Ritchie | Oliver Kylington | Noah Hanifin

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