When the Calgary Flames traded for Nikita Zadorov this past offseason, I’ll admit I wasn’t thrilled with the decision. At the time, it looked like the Flames were effectively replacing their captain and recent Norris Trophy winner in Mark Giordano with a gritty fringe defender that had put up replacement level performance the past few years.
To say Zadorov has been a surprise this season would be a massive understatement. He’s proved every single doubter wrong—myself included—and has been an effective member of a solid third pair all season long.
But that doesn’t even properly capture how well he’s played this season. Not only has Zadorov been a good third-pairing guy, he’s actually putting together one of the best defensive performances in the NHL this season, and deserves even more recognition for his efforts than he’s getting.
Let’s take a look.
Zadorov’s ability to limit shot attempts
The role of the third pair—especially in Darryl Sutter‘s system—is to limit chances against at all costs. The third pair hasn’t been relied on to drive any offence or carry the puck through the neutral zone with any regularity. Instead, their job is to shut things down, snuff the opposing forwards, and get the puck out.
Zadorov hasn’t just embraced this role, he’s excelled at it so far. The follow stats are taken at 5v5 for all defencemen this season who have played at least 30 games.
In shot attempts against per 60 minutes, which is important because it adjusts for ice time between defenders, Zadorov has allowed the fourth least in the entire NHL at 5v5. For unblocked shot attempts, he ranks ninth, and for shots on goal against he ranks 14th.
Zadorov averages just under 16 minutes TOI at 5v5 per game this season, which puts him right at where a #5 defenceman should be. When you consider the rates, this is a very impressive feat by the blueliner, and he’s been dialed into Sutter’s system from basically day one.
When you look a bit deeper at the danger of those shot attempts, Zadorov still ranks very highly in terms of limiting chances against.
Zadorov’s ability to limit scoring chances
For scoring chances against, Zadorov has allowed the seventh least amount per 60 minutes this seasons. For high-danger chances against, he ranks 23rd. Not only is Zadorov limiting chances against from every area of the ice, he’s doing an excellent job snuffing out opposing scoring chances. For expected goals against, Zadorov ranks 29th.
In each category, Zadorov is performing like a number one shutdown defender on any given team. He’s done an incredible job keeping the game low event in his own zone and keeping his goaltenders happy.
Forwards who play against Zadorov have had a tough time generating quality looks against Jacob Markstrom and Daniel Vladar, and this is a huge factor heading into the playoffs. The ability to rely on your third pairing to shut things down is important, and will be relied upon when games get tougher.
Another look from HockeyViz.com shows how the Flames’ ability to drive offence and defence is helped by having Zadorov on the ice:
With Zadorov on the ice, the Flames are able to generate 18% more expected goals for and allow 15% fewer expected goals against. Zadorov has been instrumental in driving play on both sides of the rink, and the Flames are a better team in both zones when he’s out there.
Zadorov’s true value is yet to be unleashed
There are certain players who are just built for the playoffs. Zadorov appears to be one of those players.
When the postseason rolls around, it will be a massive help to have a player like Zadorov—who can effectively shut down any forward group that comes at him—on the Flames’ third pairing.
Over the past couple months, we’ve also been able to see that Zadorov is not a one-trick pony either. He can carry the puck up the ice, he can make plays around other defenders, and he can dish out hits like nobody’s business. When you talk about X-factors heading into the playoffs, the usual suspects in Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau, Markstrom, etc. all come to mind. But don’t sleep on Zadorov, who could hit another gear altogether when the playoffs roll around.