In his seventh season as a full-time NHL defenseman, 25-year-old Nikita Zadorov has been targeted as a liability by the Blackhawks’ fan base 21 games into his tenure with the team. Before we write him off too quickly, is there a case to be made about how effective he actually is? Definitely.
Part of the issue may be the circumstances that brought him to Chicago, as he was the centerpiece of the return package when the Blackhawks shipped fan-favorite Brandon Saad to Colorado in the offseason. Or perhaps the gripes originate from his big frame of 6-foot-6 not always moving gracefully on the ice. But do either of these complaints matter if he is impacting the game in a positive way?
What the Numbers Say
Of the nine Hawks defensemen who have played this season, only four have played all 21 games; Duncan Keith, Calvin de Haan, Nikita Zadorov, and rookie Ian Mitchell. What sets Zadorov apart from that group is his goals for and against ratio at 5v5 play.
Zadorov has been on-ice for 13 goals for and 11 against in nearly 350 minutes of 5v5 ice time. That is a ratio of 54.17%, the only positive ratio aforementioned blueliners that have played every game. The next closest is Keith at 42.86% (nine goals for, 12 against).
Sure, Zadorov has his moments that leave Blackhawks fans scratching their heads. But if the whole point of hockey is to score more than the other team, then Zadorov’s numbers outlined above clearly show that his play has a positive effect on the team.
Physicality Still Matters
As well as his positive goals for and against ratio, Zadorov brings an element of physicality that the Blackhawks frankly don’t have without him. He has recorded 74 hits on the season, good for fourth-most of any player in the league and second-most by a defenseman. He’s also willing to drop the gloves when the need arises.
It’s no secret that a team with a physical player on the ice has more space for skilled players to shine. If opponents know they will meet Zadorov in the corner upon dumping the puck in the zone, they may think twice about that decision and potentially commit turnovers while entering the zone. When turnovers happen, the Blackhawks have more opportunities to use their speed in transition and create scoring chances off the rush.
So before we push him out of Chicago, let’s all take a page out of Otis Redding’s lyrical library and “try a little tenderness” with our new defenseman.
All stats via Natural Stat Trick