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Colorado Avalanche Top 25 Under 25; #6 Nikita Zadorov

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Nikita Zadorv is going to look to take another step forward this season in establishing himself as a high-end shutdown defender in the NHL

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Colorado Avalanche Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Top 25 Under 25 is a collaboration by members of the Mile High Hockey community. Eight writers and 320 readers ranked players under the age of 25 as of September 1, 2018 in the Colorado Avalanche organization. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. Now, we’ll count down each of the 25 players ranked.

It’s almost understandable for hockey fans in other markets to overlook Nikita Zadorov. He doesn’t put up eye-popping point totals, he missed a lot of time in 2016-17, and he doesn’t log ridiculous minutes. But the players in other markets have taken note, because Zadorov is the new reigning NHL hits leader with 278 in 2017-18.

It’s easy to look at his stagnant point totals and think that Z hasn’t been developing well, but that would be greatly under appreciating the value this 6’5”, 230lb horse brings to the blueline. Given that he’s accumulated over 200 NHL games, it’s also easy to forget that he’s only 23 years old! In any context, a 23-year-old playing top-4 defensive minutes and leading the league in hits is a grade-A asset for an organization, which is why he ranks so high on this 25 Under 25 list.

In his third season for the Avs, his ice time grew once again but still isn’t where it needs to be. He passed the 20-minute-mark in the playoffs (due to the injury of Johnson), but he can handle more. One of the best indicators of Zadorov’s growth as an NHLer is his positional decision-making - if you watch Game 1 of the season vs. Game 82, I’m confident you’ll notice a difference here. He is still prone to poor judgement, and often seems unaware of the size and reach he could be using more to his advantage, but he has made big strides in being in the right places at the right times, and finally looks like he truly belongs in the top-four. The next step is earning a little more time both at even-strength and on the PK.

Despite the hitting total, one area I want to see Zadorov improve on is his nastiness. He’s among the best in the league at laying people out in open ice, but in his occasional fights to avenge dirty hits on teammates, he’s not scary. Even going into the corners for pucks, he has room to lean a little more towards the “dirty” side of scrumming to really develop into a d-man that other teams hate.

The Avalanche probably have one more season max of having this secret weapon up their sleeve on the blueline. He’s become a more stable force on the back end, and has become comfortable enough within the system to take his chances and really make opponents pay when playing in the open ice. If he stays exactly where he is, he will rank high on the 25 under 25 list once again next year, but if he continues to grow his positional awareness and become an even meaner dude, then Avs fans will be absolutely spoiled with the well-rounded D corp available in the years to come.