One of the newest faces of the Chicago Blackhawks this season has found himself in a weird spot this summer. Pending restricted free agent Nikita Zadorov could see an early exit from his current team this summer. With the Seattle expansion draft, another season of flat salary, and more youth coming up could spoil his chances of a long career in Chicago. Through 43 games this season he has proven he can be a top-four calibre defenceman. However, in that same timeframe, he has shown equal, if not greater, amounts of defensive weakness to his strengths. With that being said, it’s time to take a serious look at where he fits with the Blackhawks going forward.
How Does Nikita Zadorov fit in Chicago?
State of the Rebuild
At the beginning of the season, general manager Stan Bowman announced the team would be entering a rebuilding phase in the organization. This was a way to give fans some peace of mind, as well as start to properly develop their prospect pool. As this season has shown, a lot of their NHL-ready prospects are just that, ready to play meaningful hockey. Players like Pius Suter, Philipp Kurashev, Kevin Lankinen, and Ian Mitchell have proven their NHL readiness with massive statements. Factor in the rotation of newer faces like Riley Stillman, Nicolas Beaudin, and Wyatt Kalynuk the team seems to be in good shape in the youth player department. This is where things start getting sticky for our big-bodied defenceman.
Nikita Zadorov has just turned 26, likely putting him lower on the priority list of players to develop more. With more than a handful of young, NHL-ready defencemen in the pipeline. Each of these players, including Beaudin, Kalynuk, Mitchell, Alec Regula, and Adam Boqvist, bring more to the table than Zadorov does. Where Zadorov is a defensive risk, each of these guys are more reliable in their own end. Where Zadorov isn’t the most offensively talented, these guys could quarterback offensive rushes. Sure Zadorov might be bigger, throw more hits, and have more NHL experience, but that doesn’t guarantee he’s a better fit for the future.
If Bowman really wants to continue prioritizing youth development in the very near future, then he’s going to have to give all of those players chances to play. With Zadorov taking top-four minutes at the moment, it makes it harder for them to increase their workload and develop their game more. As of now, there are two ways Bowman can achieve this. Option one would be trading him off for assets at the draft or in the offseason. The second option, however, seems more realistic, that is exposing him to Seattle and bartering a deal to have him taken from their team. Even though he doesn’t fit in Chicago’s scheme it doesn’t mean he isn’t of value to an NHL team. His physical presence as well as his stay home style can be of use somewhere.
Possible Scenarios Where he Can Stay
Bowman and Colliton seem to really like Nikita Zadorov despite his major flaws. Because of this, it could be harder for them to part ways with the defenceman this offseason, keeping him a Blackhawk for the near future. As stated before Zadorov can be an effective piece to any NHL blue line, including Chicago’s. The team has lacked a physical presence like Zadorov for a long while. With Seabrook off the roster as well, who typically was throwing his body around as Zadorov does, it leaves room for Zadorov to fill that gap.
The Blackhawks also have an abundance of young, NHL talent that’s flooding their prospect pool. Calvin de Haan is 29 and has been rumoured to be on his way out in the near future. With a $4.5 million dollar cap hit, he’s one of the oldest defencemen on the team. He’s been known to be injury-prone, something the team could look at as a liability in the future. Consistency in a lineup is key to a team’s success. If he were to keep bouncing in and out of the lineup, it might disrupt the locker room chemistry.
This would put the veteran leadership on the blue line between Connor Murphy and Duncan Keith. They’re capable leaders that have been with Chicago for a decent chunk of time, but sometimes there need to be leaders that aren’t designated with the letter on their jersey. Zadorov has over 400 games of NHL experience. That’s a lot of games in comparison to a player that hasn’t hit 50 NHL games. If there’s one thing that can help build a good atmosphere in the locker room it’s having a good mentor for younger, less experienced players to bond with and learn from.
The Reality of the Situation
Zadorov isn’t going to be cheap to keep on the team. With captain Jonathan Toews likely to return to the team, so will his $10.5 million cap hit. Andrew Shaw could also be returning next season, including his $3.9 cap hit. Zadorov is currently on an expiring deal that pays him $3.2 million. That’s a high price for a defenceman that’s been a liability more times than not for Chicago this season. Factor in all of the youth that’ll be flooding the roster, and the need to increase their overall competitive edge, and Zadorov looks to be on his way out of Chicago. On the off chance that he is able to stay with the team through next season, however, he will need to step up his game if he wants to be a Blackhawk for the foreseeable future.