Blackhawks’ Nikita Zadorov has tools to be shutdown D-man, but he must find consistency
Zadorov’s best and worst were on display Friday against the Lightning.
Defenseman Nikita Zadorov showed his best and worst during the Blackhawks-Lightning game Friday in Tampa, Florida.
First, Bad Zadorov appeared.
Early in the third period, while defending a simple three-on-three rush, the hulking defenseman inexplicably tracked puck-carrying Steven Stamkos from the left side to the middle of the ice, even though fellow defenseman Connor Murphy already had the middle lane locked down.
The odd maneuver left Ondrej Palat wide-open on Zadorov’s vacated wing, and Palat roared in on Hawks goalie Collin Delia for a high-danger chance that never should have happened.
But Good Zadorov arrived on his next shift.
With the Hawks seeking a tying goal, Zadorov twice stepped up and delivered firm, effective hits on the Lightning’s Blake Coleman just inside the Hawks’ offensive zone. Zadorov won the puck back both times and was able to keep the offensive cycle alive.
Inconsistency such as that plagued Zadorov’s five-year stint with the Avalanche before this season. He frequently displayed all the physical tools and raw skills needed to become an elite shutdown defenseman but never really put it all together.
The Hawks acquired Zadorov, 25, this offseason with the hopes a fresh team and bigger role would help him finally do so.
Two games into the 2021 season, Zadorov arguably looks closer to the full package now, but he’s not fully there yet.
‘‘He definitely looks the part,’’ Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton said Friday. ‘‘He’s got a lot of nice parts to his game, so it’s just the challenge to help him to find a way to bring it more consistently — not just game-to-game but shift-to-shift — because we do think there’s more there.
‘‘It’s up to him to commit to getting better and be focused every time he’s on the ice, whether it’s practice or a game. And it’s up to us to find new ways to get through the message and reach his potential. . . . So we’ve got to find a button he can get to. I think he can be a really, really effective defenseman in the league.’’
Of course, the fact Zadorov has remained a regular NHL player in spite of his inconsistency means he already does a lot of things well.
During camp, Colliton described him as ‘‘nearly impossible’’ to enter the defensive zone against.
‘‘He’s got a really long reach, of course, with his size,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘But he’s such a good skater, he’s able to close on guys. So that’s a big part of what he brings. And the ‘D’ zone, that’s been the message: Get a stop, use his reach to break up plays and that can get us going the other way in transition.’’
Zadorov mostly played with second-year man Adam Boqvist in the Lightning series, and the pairing produced mixed results. To be fair, Zadorov missed four of eight camp sessions with a minor groin injury, so some rust is forgivable.
In the first game, Zadorov played 14:42 at even strength, during which the shot attempts were 6-5 Lightning, the scoring chances were 3-3 and the Lightning scored once.
Other than the goal, that’s what an ideal Zadorov outing should look like: a sizable minute share during which low-event, defensive hockey occurs. That’s what a shutdown defenseman does.
In the second game, Zadorov played only 10:55 at even strength, but the shot attempts were 17-12 Lightning, the scoring chances were 12-9 Lightning and the Lightning scored once. That’s high-event, offensive hockey, which isn’t ideal.
The key moving forward will be to get his outings to look more like the first game than the second.
‘‘I have a plan to play here and show my best hockey all the time, so I can stay here as long as I can,’’ Zadorov said. ‘‘It’s a big chance to show off what I can do to the management, to the owners, to the coaches. Hopefully they’ll like me, and I’ll stay here.’’