D-man Zadorov wants to improve his o≠ense
21-year-old acquisition in last year’s O’Reilly trade has been making progress
Erik Johnson, the Avalanche’s best defenseman who also is a mainstay on special teams and averages 22 minutes of ice time, suffered a broken fibula against the Stars on Dec. 3. That was in the final game of an 0-4-1 homestand that was the beginning of a homeice winless streak that now has reached nine games.
In the nearly four weeks since, Colorado has been attempting to piece together pairings capable of, among other things, helping out goalies Calvin Pickard and Semyon Varlamov. If there’s any silver lining in all of this, it’s that defenseman Nikita Zadorov, still only 21, periodically has played well enough to provide additional hope that the 2015 Ryan O’Reilly trade can be something other than a one-sided disaster for the Avalanche.
Yes, that’s worded with caution. The Avalanche has the fewest points in the NHL — 25 going into Thursday night’s game at Dallas — and Zadorov is a minus-13, second-worst to Tyson Barrie‘s minus-20 among the Colorado defensemen. Zadorov has had his problems, too, but he has been making progress.
“Hundred percent, yes,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said after practice Wednesday. “We talked to him a lot early in the year about just honing in on his defensive details, working on those details, improving and being more of a physical presence in front of our net and keeping guys off the net. Right now, I would say he’d put more work into his conditioning off the ice. We feel like he can handle more minutes, but we wanted him to get into better condition in order to be able to do that. He’s been committed there and I believe that’s given him some confidence on the ice. I would say over the past 10 to 12 games we’ve seen him play some of his best games of the year, amidst a tough stretch.”
Zadorov doesn’t have a goal, has five assists and is averaging 17:48 of ice time. Against Calgary on Tuesday, he played 23:41 — mostly in a pairing with Francois Beauchemin — and was a minus-2.
“I’m not putting myself ahead of the team interests,” Zadorov said. “I know what I can do better. I’m going to work at it. Obviously, I’m not happy. It’s been pretty frustrating. It’s not fun. We’re here to win. That’s why we’re in this business. … It’s hard when you can’t finish it off. We had a good talk today, a good practice and we need to bring it on the ice (at Dallas).” What can he work on? “Oh, my offensive game,” he said quickly. “The more offensive plays made, the more chances I’m going to generate for our forwards to score goals, get the lead, score enough goals to win the game. Myself, I have to shoot more, finish opportunities and score goals.”
And, yes, this bears repeating: He’s still only 21 and playing the position at which players take longer to develop. Buffalo’s firstround pick (16th overall) in 2013, Zadorov — who came to North America from his native Russia in time to play two seasons of major junior with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League — was part of the package Colorado acquired from the Sabres for O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn. In addition to Zadorov, the Avalanche got Mikhail Grigorenko, J.T. Compher (now with San Antonio) and a second-round pick that later was traded to San Jose. Grigorenko has been given plenty of chances to play on top lines but continues to struggle, and Compher — playing for the University of Michigan at the time of the trade — is considered a legitimate organizational prospect, and he has seven goals and seven assists in 16 games with the San Antonio Rampage.
“I’m getting better every day,” Zadorov said. “I’m coming to practice, I’m playing games, I’m getting more confidence and learning more things. I’ve been in this league, what, 3½ years (off and on since 2013), and I started when I was 18 and saw everything. Look at Brent Burns (of San Jose) — he’s like 30 and he’s the best defenseman. He’s one of the best players in this league right now. You can be good at 18, but you can be good at 35, it doesn’t matter.”
The Avs’ Nikita Zadorov fights for the puck with the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews on Friday. Kamil Krzaczynski, The Associated Press