Nikita Zadorov was signed to a 1-year, $3.2M contract yesterday, avoiding arbitration and shunting a long-term decision by the Avs another year into the future. It’s no secret that Zadorov wanted a longer contract and for a higher AAV but it’s tough to justify that right now from the club’s standpoint. This deal is somewhere between fair and generous, which shows a willingness by the Avs to let him earn the big deal and some confidence that he can.
Z’s career and contract history has unsurprisingly seen a lot of ups and downs. He signed and slid in his D+1. He was still too young for the AHL but too advanced for major junior in D+2 so he was over his head in the NHL most of the year. Then the trade with the Avs came and he spent most of that season in San Antonio before finally making the NHL for good in the lost season of 16-17. It was a lost season for him too with a gruesome leg injury ending his campaign in February.
That injury brought him to his first contract negotiation and it did not go well at all. To that point he had played 78 games for the Avs and was yet to put the puck in the net and had a grand total of 12 assists. He held out until the eve of training camp when an eleventh hour change of agency got a generous 2-year, $4.3M bridge deal done. This was the first year of Jared Bednar’s massive fitness regime, he was not up to par and had a slow start. He clawed his way up the lineup and ended the season on the top pair with Tyson Barrie and 7G/13A. Shoulder surgery once again limited his off-season training and that plus the Ian Cole acquisition landed him on the 3rd pair with another slow start. Once again he rose up the depth chart and ended the season with Tyson Barrie. His goal total was the same at 7 but assists went down from 13 to 7. Points aren’t everything, especially with Zadorov, but in the NHL they are what gets players paid.
The question now is will Zadorov finally take the next step and earn the contract he wants by playing the way he needs to consistently. The bridge deal should have settled that but this 1 year show-me contract ends up the final determiner. There are things that Z does very well, there are things he does not and a couple of key areas he can improve upon to cement his place with the Avs before youth overtakes him from behind.
By his own admission he’s a defensive defenseman but there’s a minimum level of production that any top 4 D needs to be viable. He’s not a throwback that never appears in the picture when the Avs are in the offensive zone, he has some of the right instincts to get this done. Mostly he has goal-scoring instincts, his assist production is a glaring weak spot. His goals per hour (5v5) last year was 0.4, behind only Tyson Barrie among regular D’s and up from 0.23 the year before. Assists are another story, his 5v5 assists per hour was 0.4, lowest out of all the D’s that actually had assists. On the surface it looks like he had a massive drop from the season before, 13 to 7 but last year he was king of the secondary assist with 8. Not that they aren’t important but primary assists went from 5 to 6 and 5v5 primary assist rate from 0.19 to 0.34 per hour. I wouldn’t call that outstanding but there’s evidence of gradual improvement.
One thing we usually see with young players and especially young defensemen is that they don’t generate enough shots. Zadorov has always had a lot of his shot attempts blocked, generally over 40% which isn’t great at all.. I think most of this boils down to shot selection and reading plays. He’s got a shoot first mentality so it is what it is. I think the reason he has so few assists and especially primary assists is that he’s not seeing the open man with a better opportunity and just blasts away. Like his scoring though, there is evidence of improvement. Shot attempts per hour were up around 8% over last year but unblocked shot attempts were up 20%, shots on goal up 32% and expected goals up 43%. See what’s happening here? He’s improving his quality numbers faster than his overall shot generation numbers. That’s helpful but he still needs to consider a little playmaking too. He’s got capacity to improve the goalscoring but adding assists is what’s going to make his point totals really move.
One total eye test thing that bugs everyone is how often he breaks his stick on a shot from the point and the opponent gets a rush chance. Be like Mack and change your stick every period or something, that’s a somewhat preventable deal.
There’s always going to be a bit of a bias against bigger players on penalties and Z definitely gets his share of calls because he’s 6’5 and most other guys are not. A large part of the calls against Zadorov are interference and roughing, aggression penalties – so the kind that coaches are usually fine with. He doesn’t take many lazy stick penalties which is good. Anecdotally there were definitely several ill-timed penalties this year which were not helpful at all and that’s the kind of thing that sticks in your mind. In general the trend is going down slightly from 1.8 penalties per hour in 2017 to 1.72 in 2018 to 1.64 this season. This is something that’s always going to be a part of his game and the hope is with experience and situational awareness the ill-timed aspect will decrease.
This is Z’s house and where he has the most influence on the game. Unfortunately for him it’s hard to quantify. We can start with hits where he’s now a regular among league leaders. He had 11.85 hits per hour last year, the next closest regular D was Patrik Nemeth with 6.73 per hour. Not all of these are open ice blowups but plenty are. The effect of this is what’s hard to nail down. Mainly what we see is that teams intentionally avoid trying to enter the Avs d-zone on his side. This is a really important aspect of the game and in Coach Bednar’s system so I’m confident the team knows that they have an elite neutral zone defender but what the demand is for that is unknown.
This is where some of the glaring holes in Zadorov’s game can show up. We can live with scant offensive production if the defense is solid but it’s not there consistently yet. Young defensemen struggle covering wily NHL forwards but sooner or later it has to click. On the PK and once in a while at 5v5 he gets smoked and it’s definitely a concern for the staff.
His PK time has fallen two years in a row and despite the best shot metrics out of the 4 regular PK D’s he had the worst on-ice save percentage and goals against per hour rates. That generally means mistakes are happening when he’s on the ice and he’s probably a big part of that. Forget the scoring, if he can’t effectively kill penalties then he’s going to be of little use to the Avs in the long run.
On the bright side, his shot metrics are all tip top at 5v5. He suppresses volume and quality well and benefited from a very high on-ice save percentage in contrast to the PK. Anecdotally some of the same mistakes are made but the damage is much less here.
Zadorov spent 41% of the season with Patrik Nemeth (which usually means he plays on his offhand side), 26% with Tyson Barrie, 12% with Ian Cole, 8% with EJ, 7% with San Girard and the rest with randoms. Using xGF% as a proxy for “better” here’s how he affected/was affected by his partners:
Nemo – played well together but Z was the driver
Barrie – on paper not very effective together but that doesn’t pass the eye test
Cole – played well together and Cole was much worse away from Z
EJ – were great together (SSS) and much higher event than usual for both
Sam – did not play well together, very low event and poor shot share
This season is a great opportunity for Zadorov to show what he’s got right out of the gate. He’s healthy (as far as we know) for the first time in 3 summers and with Cole and perhaps EJ out he will be able to show what he can do as the defensive stopper. The Avs PK in general was terrible last year so if whatever the staff cooks up to fix that makes Z more effective there then bonus, we have a new top PK guy. Colorado needs that badly and he could save us the horror of buying more free agent defensemen next summer. As far as his other defense-oriented flaws like losing guys in front of the net and taking penalties at inopportune moments, clean that up a little but those had more of an eye test effect than an actual statistical effect last year. A little more consistency will go a long way. Offensively there’s not much to say other than he’s got to look for the play as well as the shot. I don’t know if that’s something that can be taught, let’s hope so.
One thing seems pretty clear, we won’t be at this same spot a year from now wondering if he’ll take the next big step in 2020. Either he will have taken it or likely will be elsewhere.