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The Colorado Avalanche need to keep Nikita Zadorov away from Erik Johnson

Nikita Zadorov is a drain on Erik Johnson’s defensive play

Winnipeg Jets v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

So far this season, the Colorado Avalanche have had a revolving door of defensemen coming in and out of the lineup. The only two defenders that have played in every Avalanche game have been Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson. One, a puck moving, offensive catalyst, the other, an all-around defender that is counted on to play against the top opposition every night.

Patrik Nemeth has been in the lineup whenever healthy, but other than that, the coaching staff seems content with shuffling through the rest of the group until they find a combination that sticks. That is to be expected when your roster is filled with as many young defenders as this one is. Between Anton Lindholm, Andrei Mironov, and Chris Bigras, there are a lot of question marks when to whether or not they are long-term NHLers.

As expected, Erik Johnson leads all Avalanche defensemen in ice time this season, unfortunately for him, nearly two-thirds of his even strength TOI has been with Nikita Zadorov, the problem is, Zadorov has been nothing but a drain on him from a statistical standpoint. By any metric you want to choose, Erik Johnson is a better hockey player away from Nikita Zadorov than he is when they’re playing together.

These numbers are all at even-strength - a time when Bednar is normally playing the Johnson/Zadorov pairing against the top line on the opposing team. They lineup against the toughest competition on the team and do so with the highest defensive-zone start rate on the team so it’s not suprising that neither has great possession numbers. The issue is that Johnson’s improve significantly when you separate the two.

Erik Johnson statistics with/without Nikita Zadorov

Season TOI With TOI Away CF% With Zadorov CF% Without Zadorov FF% With Zadorov FF% Without Zadorov GF% With GF% Without Zadorov SCF% With SCF% Without Zadorov HDCF% With HDCF% Without Zadorov
Season TOI With TOI Away CF% With Zadorov CF% Without Zadorov FF% With Zadorov FF% Without Zadorov GF% With GF% Without Zadorov SCF% With SCF% Without Zadorov HDCF% With HDCF% Without Zadorov
2016-17 157 155 48.03 54.31 50.75 55.04 33.33 43.75 50.85 55.21 40.48 49.21
2017-18 75 38 46 51.94 43.86 52.38 33.33 62.5 46.97 54.79 39.13 55.17

This year, the two have been paid together far more than they have been apart. This is nothing new, last season, Johnson was Zadorov’s second most common partner after Francois Beauchemin - and one would assume he was only second because Johnson missed nearly half the season with an injury.

The splits are actually getting worse this season through the nine games that Zadorov has been in the lineup. There is little argument to be made against Erik Johnson being a significantly better player when he’s not on the ice with Nikita Zadorov. Since coach Bednar insists on playing the two together, it’s not a coincidence that Johnson’s best games so far this season have been the ones where Zadorov was in the press box as a healthy scratch.

Erik Johnson is the team’s best all-around defenseman, I doubt anyone would argue that, but he is being made significantly worse by his partner. For the Avs to allow Johnson to thrive, they would do well to keep him away from Zadorov - at least when playing 5v5.

He’s in the coach's doghouse right now, but that won’t last forever. When Zadorov gets back in the lineup, Bednar should keep the two separate and see how things go. The ironic part of all of this is that Zadorov also gets a slight uptick in performance when away from Johnson.

Maybe the coaching staff thinks Zadorov needs Johnson to succeed. Maybe their eye test simply doesn’t match the numbers and they think the two defenders are better together than apart. Whatever the reason for playing these two together, the Avalanche coaching staff is making their team worse by doing so.

We’ll see what happens when Zadorov gets back into the lineup, but something tells me he’ll be right back on Johnson’s left side - somewhere he shouldn’t be.