D-man Zadorov wants to im­prove his o≠ense

21-year-old ac­qui­si­tion in last year’s O’Reilly trade has been mak­ing progress

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Terry Frei Terry Frei: tfrei@den­ver­post.com or @TFrei

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

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