Today’s Top 25 Avalanche Under 25 looks at the biggest piece of last seasons blockbuster Ryan O'Reilly trade, Nikita Zadorov. The BSN Avalanche staff is very high on Zadorov, as no one had him ranked lower than fourth. Of the seven ballots entered, Zadorov was ranked third on 2 ballots and fourth on 5 ballots, giving him an average of 3.7, just barely edging out Mikko Rantanen.
Who is Nikita Zadorov?
The freakishly talented Zadorov was the 16th overall selection by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2013 draft. After only 7 NHL games in 2013-2014, he was sent back to the London Knights. The next season, as a 19-year-old who could only play in the NHL or CHL, the Sabres decided to keep him on the NHL roster all year, even though Zadorov could have used more seasoning.
During that year, Zadorov had a few issues that caused the Sabres to question his maturity. Returning from his vacation during the All-Star Break, Zadorov's flight was overbooked, causing him to be late coming back to the Sabres. Just a few weeks later, he overslept and missed a team meeting. Normally, a 20 year old defenseman with Zadorov's size, skill, and pedigree wouldn't be available in a trade, but with the Sabres questioning his maturity, the Avalanche were able to acquire him as the centerpiece in the Ryan O'Reilly trade in June of 2015.
Zadorov started his first season in Colorado playing big minutes, as he was well over 20 minutes in 2 of the Avs first 3 games, but Roy began to trust him less and less as the first month wore on, and after a disastrous game against the Arizona Coyotes on November 5, Zadorov was sent to the AHL for seasoning. The Avs were struggling, and Roy didn't feel he could trust Zadorov in the lineup every night, thinking it would be better for him to play heavy minutes in the AHL.
Zadorov flashed brilliance in the AHL, while also frustrating many people with his high-risk game. He spent two months in the AHL before another brief return to the NHL. After 4 strong games playing heavy minutes with Francois Beauchemin, he struggled against the St. Louis Blues, and with Erik Johnson's return looming, he was returned to the AHL. He was rewarded with a late season callup due to his strong play in the AHL and finished the season with the Avs.
What is the Future for Nikita Zadorov?
Zadorov has every physical tool you could want in a defenseman. He's 6'5", can really move, loves to hit, and to top it all off, he's got a lot of offensive skill. The question is going to be whether the mental tools ever completely catch up with the physical tools. In the defensive zone, he's very difficult to beat 1 on 1 because of his combination of size and skating, but he has a tendency to puck watch, which gets him in trouble. When he has the puck and moves his feet, it's very difficult for the opposing team to slow him down. When he stops moving his feet, bad decisions tend to follow, so the Avs have to continue to work with him. It's important to remember that he's still extremely young at 21, and bigger defensemen tend to take a little longer to develop. Given that he was the main piece in the O'Reilly trade, the spotlight is obviously on him, but the Avs and the Avs fan base still need to be patient with him. With the risky style Zadorov plays, the mistakes will likely always be there, but with time, they should decrease.
Despite his risky game, Zadorov has shown to be quite effective at suppressing shots at the NHL level, to the surprise of many. His size and ability to take away time and space quickly likely plays a role in this. He also really was not sheltered at the NHL level last season. No Avalanche defender started a higher percentage of their shifts in the defensive zone than Zadorov.
If Zadorov reaches his potential, the closest NHL comparable for him might be Dustin Byfuglien. Both are unique talents. Both are faster and more talented than you might think. Zadorov, like Byfuglien, is going to be the type of player that pisses off the other team and their fanbase, all while still annoying many of his own team's fans with his risky game.
Zadorov is expected to be with the Avalanche all season long, even if he does not play every night. Joe Sakic has publicly stated that Fedor Tyutin was brought in to help mentor Zadorov, and with an expansion draft and new contract looming, the Avs have to know more of what they have in Z. Bednar's aggressive system that allows his defensemen to join the rush seems like a natural fit for Big Z, and he'll be looking for a big training camp and preseason to show the new coach he's ready for a consistent role in the NHL.