The story as told to us right now is that Nikita Zadorov has requested a trade from the Calgary Flames. The implication is that the request came last night after he was unhappy with his ice time – the lowest he'd played all season. But we don't actually know the timing.
Let's back up a little and get to know the player first and understand his situation in Calgary. Yes, yes indeed, he is tall and he is a heavily muscled man. So if you do player evaluation by size, just skip to the comments.
Zadorov was drafted 16th overall, one place higher than Timothy Liljegren and four years earlier in 2013. Drafted by the Sabres from the London Knights, he jumped right into the NHL when his post-draft junior season was over. He also played for Russia in the WJC that year. He only played 67 games as a Sabre at the height (depth?) of their tank cycle of despair before he was bundled of to the Avs in the trade for Ryan O'Reilly in 2015.
The Avs were not very good. They still had Patrick Roy as head coach, and their defence corps was built around Tyson Barrie. Zadorov spent most of that first season with the new team in the AHL, a place he'd never been. The Avalanche AHL team had a very poor reputation in those days for developing players, and the now 20-year old defenceman who'd always been able to get by because he's 6'6" (all day long) was not in the best place to be taken seriously as a hockey player.
He played a second NHL season with the Avs in 2016-2017, the year Patrick Roy quit in August and Jared Bednar walked into the bedlam of a team in disarray. Zadorov only got in 56 games and I'm going to use a bad stat now, brace yourselves. He was a -20. Oh, gosh, he must be horrible. No one on the Avs had a positive +/- that season except one fellow who only played one game. They were horrible. They got better.
Bednar brought the team up to a perennial playoff team over the next three years, and Zadorov saw his ice time, his points and his salary rise. In 2020, with a Qualifying Offer of $3.2 million and arbitration rights, the Avs traded his signing rights to Chicago in the Brandon Saad deal. He was a casualty of a capped out team where he's still been a borderline role player. He was a big-hitting defender, who played PK, had some okay defensive results and was a disaster offensively, and he was coming off the worst year of his career. He was 24 and in his seventh season in the NHL.
The Covid season in Chicago was an interregnum where no one expected to win games, and then his rights were traded again, this time to Calgary. And everything about Zadorov and his game changed.
In his first season under Darryl Sutter, his defensive impacts became enormous and his negative effect on offence settled down to a tolerable zero – neither helping nor hindering. Last year was nearly the same, and he even had good results from personal shooting which is not really his area, but it was a nice bonus. He played 19 minutes a game.
This season, with Sutter gone, the team not suddenly fixed, and all the related drama that goes along with laying eggs in a Canadian market, Zadorov made some pointed comments about his team not having the excuse of the hard coach anymore. Has that earlier moment of honesty led to today? Or is it ice time? Because he's been pretty much the same player as last year on a team where few can make that claim.
After last night's shootout loss to the Leafs, the word got out that Zadorov wanted out of Calgary. The assumption is that Calgary is going to throw in the towel on this season, sell off the pending UFAs – five of their current seven defenders as well as Elias Lindholm, and try again next year. The statement from Zadorov's agent is that they want this resolved soon.
Normally, that would get scoffed at because it is only November 11, and no one makes trades until January. But there have already been some trades during the season, and it seems like this isn't all that normal a year.
For one thing, aside from Calgary, both the Oilers and the Leafs are in the classic situation of underperforming significantly where first you make a trade, and then you fire someone.
But Tanev/Hanifin, Though
Yes, I know you want that other better defender who would cost a lot more to acquire and has a bigger cap hit to try to fit on a team that can't play more than 20 players when they are all healthy.
And yes, I know you want to trade John Klingberg one-for-one for that player.
You aren't getting that. Let's turn the tables and look at this from Calgary's perspective.
Why is Calgary Making a Trade?
It has been reported that the Flames called off contract talks with Lindholm and Hanifin when they started to lose a lot of games. They have a difficult cap situation, and they likely will not re-sign all their big-name UFAs. Zadorov is the obvious player to let walk. If you had Hanifin, which would you try to keep? So it makes sense to the Flames to assume Zadorov is going as a UFA, and that Hanifin might not be. Tanev is a guy in between in money and ability, and he may or may not stay.
But it is November 11. The flames are four points behind the Ducks for fourth place in the Pacific with the same number of regulation wins. Let me mention this again, lest you've forgotten. They play in the Pacific, where the competition for playoff spots is a little easier to overcome. Should they be selling off players and giving up now? They lost to the Leafs on a coinflip, after all.
The only reason the Flames might make a deal now is if they think removing Zadorov will improve their team cohesion and help them to not be sellers at the deadline. Or at least might keep anyone from getting fired for a few weeks. Remember, the Flames GM is new, the coach is newly hired by that GM, and they are all in the same sort of situation as the Toronto staff trying to keep fingers from pointing their way.
As for the statements being issued by Zadorov's agent about where he'd be happy to play – he has no trade protection, it's all noise, and he doesn't get a vote. There's a lot more teams than the Leafs looking askance at their defence already this season, so the market is wide open. But the Flames sure don't have to make any move right now.
Would Zadorov Make the Leafs Defence Better?
I expect to hear a lot about grrr argh, he hits and the Leafs aren't manly enough, and he's manly and grrr argh, you need to hit guys and... whaaa whaaa.
For me, I don't care how a defender defends, only that they do it well. We saw some of the physical side to Zadorov last night when he – no not that hit on Bertuzzi, that's a sideshow – when he pinched off Matt Knies along the boards and the puck popped out into Flames' hands. Zadorov ended a zone entry before it had really begun.
He is also really tall, and really tall players have really long sticks, and defenders benefit from that in many ways. He needs to be more than strong and tall, though. So what does his current, Calgary career impact look like?
I posted a sly comparison in comments, but this is a more appropriate look at on-ice results at five-on-five:
Zadorov has seen worse goaltending which accounts for a lot of the difference in goals for and against they've experienced – on-ice save % is a context of the player's performance, not a result of it. Defenders are not responsible for that number.
HockeyViz's player isolated impact as of this moment has Zadorov at 0% over league average offensively and -6% (so better) defensively.
Liljegren is -4% and -3% as of early November.
A look at Evolving Hockey will show Zadorov with good to very good impacts on shotshare and particularly shots against in the last few years. He's not TJ Brodie who has outstanding defensive impacts and significant negative effects on offence. He's less dramatic with no real negative offensive impact.
So yes, he'd make the Leafs defence better. Look, it would be hard not to.
Ah, yes, the tough part. Is this imaginary trade and imaginary improvement on defence worth the price?
Zadorov's cap hit is $3.75 million. I know some guy on Twitter has told you his prorated cap hit if he were traded now, but the Leafs are in LTIR, his cost is $3.75 million.
How do they come up with that space? That's a very good question, because there is no fat to cut on the forward end of the balance sheet, so someone on defence has to go. And it has to be someone the Flames would really want.
Now, if John Klingberg is so injured he's going to go on LTIR for a good long time – which seems implausible, this calculation is different. But while the Flames aren't taking Klingberg straight up for anyone, it almost seems necessary to remove him from the Leafs to even consider all of this.
The other question is, of course, the gift that keeps on taking in Ryan Reaves. Because if you get Zadorov, you really don't need Reaves. Zadorov can deliver all the big hits you want while actually playing good hockey. He's also reportedly a very fun guy, always cheerful, etc. etc. I don't know what his taste in music runs to.
The asset-poor Leafs, who have next year's first and a bunch of junk picks and a very limited pool of prospects or young players the Flames might want, are in tough to outbid any other team that thinks a hard-playing, big defender who actually defends well and plays a decent PK is what they need. So it seems like paying for salary dumps and/or retention on top of the player himself is unlikely.
You could maybe interest the Flames in Jake McCabe, a player who is inexpensive, playable now, and maybe tradeable again at the deadline if they're out of the running.
This all feels like trying to go shopping with a maxed out credit card to me, though. A trip to the pawn shop with an couple of old tarnished rings that might not even be gold is not going to help.
We'll see where this goes.