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Nikita Zadorov’s uncertain future with the Avalanche

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As Zadorov’s ice time drops, the Colorado Avalanche need to decide where he fits on the team

NHL: Preseason-Dallas Stars at Colorado Avalanche Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

For the longest time, Nikita Zadorov was seen as the future of the Colorado Avalanche blueline. Young, tough and the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade, the team and their fans had high hopes for the Russian defender.

Then came a contentious contract negotiations and an arrival at 2017 training camp that left the coaching staff underwhelmed with his dedication to training. Add to that the drafting of Cale Makar, the acquisition of Sam Girard and even the signing of Ian Cole and all of a sudden Zadorov’s place on the Avalanche depth chart isn’t nearly as high as it once was.

Now we’re seeing a significant decline in his ice time.

Through 18 games this season, Zadorov is averaging only 15:12 minutes a game - the lowest average of his career and nearly four minutes fewer than a season ago. A lot of it has to do with being replaced by Ian Cole on the team’s top penalty kill unit, but Zadorov’s even strength TOI is down as well - his 13:10 EV minutes a game is last among the six defenders that are regularly in the Avalanche lineup.

Big Z has been spending a lot of his time on the third pairing and has been showing some very poor defensive numbers despite being deployed in a sheltered role. His -5.72 relCF% is second worst on the team after Patrik Nemeth. No Avalanche defender gives up even strength shot attempts at a higher rate than Zadorov has this season. This despite Z starting more than half his shifts in the offensive zone - another change from last season.

After being benched against the Bruins Wednesday night, it’s starting to look more and more like Zadorov is running out of leash with the coaching staff.

Is this a warning to the player that he’s got to make a few changes? Or is it more of an indictment of where he fits in to the long-term plans of the organization.

Maybe things change for him over the remaining three quarters of the season. Zadorov got better in the second half last year, so it’s conceivable that it happens again this year. The big defender could turn things around and make these early season concerns about performance and ice time all for naught. But as things sit right now, it’s going to be hard for the Avalanche to commit to the young Russian for the long term.

Nikita Zadorov will be a restricted free agent this summer and it will be hard to pin down exactly where the 24-year-old should be slotted in the team’s salary structure. Coming off of a two-year contract with a $2.15m AAV, one would assume Zadorov is going to be looking for a raise. If he continues to play the way he has this season, it will be hard to justify one. He is arbitration eligible, but finishing the year with fewer than 20 points and a career-low in ice time, his agent might not see that as the best avenue.

Would a one year bridge deal be the best option for Zadorov? Bet on himself. Give him some time to re-build his value in the hopes of getting a long term deal the next summer.

There’s also the possibility of a trade. Yesterday during his weekly 31 Thoughts column, Elliotte Friedman brought up Zadorov’s name. While Friedman made a point to mention that he hadn’t heard Zadorov attached to any specific trade rumors, he mentioned that it’s a situation worth monitoring as the season moves on.

“6. Something to watch: Ice time for Colorado’s Nikita Zadorov (15:40 per game) is down almost four minutes from 2017–18. It is by far the lowest of his career. Zadorov came a long way last season after being a healthy scratch on opening night. He’ll be 24 in April, and is a restricted free agent. Have not heard his name in any trade rumours, and there aren’t too many like him. Let’s see where this goes.”

Maybe Joe Sakic is as underwhelmed with Zadorov as Bednar seems to be. If that’s the case, trading Zadorov might be a legitimate option. Maybe Sakic tries to swing a deal for another team’s under performing defender in a classic “change of scenery” trade.

The other option is that Sakic dangles Zadorov in an attempt to acquire some more skill up front. It would create a hole on the blueline, but the team can work around it. Anton Lindholm is with the Eagles and is likely chomping at the bit to get back in the NHL. He wasn't good last season, but he was no worse than Zadorov has been this year. Or maybe this is the opportunity to see what the Avs have in Ryan Graves.

With Cale Makar expected to join the Avalanche when his NCAA season is over, the bottom third of the defense group could get crowded very quickly. Trading Zadorov for help elsewhere could alleviate that.

It can be argued that you’d be trading Zadorov at his lowest value. While that may be true, the NHL is still inundated with general managers that would give an arm and a leg for a hard-hitting 6’4” defender with the pedigree of Zadorov. You could certainly get good value for him.

We’re not at the “move on from him” point with Zadorov yet, but as his TOI drops with each passing game, we’re getting closer.

For now, all the team can do is put Zadorov in a position to succeed - which probably means moving him away form Patrik Nemeth - and hope that he works his way through the early season slump. At his best Nikita Zadorov is a solid second pairing defender that brings an element to the Avs lineup that not many others do. Let’s hope we see the return of that Big Z sooner rather than later, otherwise he might not be long for Colorado.