Blackhawks’ Nikita Zadorov experiment has reached a critical moment

After acquiring Riley Stillman and scratching Zadorov — but not trading him — on Monday, the hulking defenseman has 13 games left to prove to the Hawks he can be a consistent top-four defenseman.

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Nikita Zadorov ranks sixth in the NHL in hits, but he needs to do more to prove his worth.

Nikita Zadorov ranks sixth in the NHL in hits, but he needs to do more to prove his worth.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

Nikita Zadorov has one month left to prove to the Blackhawks that he should be part of their future.

The Hawks kept that window open for Zadorov by not trading him before the deadline Monday. They asked a high price for him and decided to keep him when, unsurprisingly, no suitors met that price.

But the Hawks also sent Zadorov two strong messages days before and hours after the deadline. They acquired Riley Stillman, a similarly physical, stay-at-home defenseman, from the Panthers. And he was a healthy scratch in favor of Stillman for the first time this season Monday night against the Blue Jackets.

The hulking 6-6, 235-pound defenseman, who turns 26 on Friday, will be a restricted free agent this summer and will require a qualifying offer of at least $3.2 million to maintain his restricted status. He’ll likely expect to sign for even more than that. 

But the big question is if that will be with the Hawks. Just because general manager Stan Bowman didn’t trade him Monday doesn’t mean he won’t this summer.

Zadorov also now must battle a clear competitor for his role — for the first time since his arrival in Chicago last fall — and his competitor sounds motivated.

“I have to carve out a niche for myself,” Stillman said Wednesday. “I have to continue to work every day to keep my job or to take someone else’s job to make sure I can stay in the lineup every night.

Coach Jeremy Colliton’s assessments of Zadorov have fallen all over the map this season. Just last week, Colliton twice defended Zadorov, insisting he had “definitely improved defensively, with the puck and with his consistency.”

Yet after scratching him Monday, Colliton offered some of the same compliments but with a far different tone.

“We think he can bring much more to the table,” Colliton said. “We were quite happy for a long stretch, and he’s dropped off and we need him. 

“He can really help us with the things he brings when he’s good. He’s physical. He’s hard to play against. He’s mean. He can get stops even if he’s not in a perfect position because he’s so big. He can break up plays. He has a long reach. He’s a great skater. His puck plays have improved over the year. But recently [he] hasn’t been as good and we have to get him back to that.”

Colliton’s assessments of Zadorov might be all over the map because Zadorov’s actual results have been all over the map.

Along the defensive blue line, Zadorov has been terrible. 22% of opponent zone entries against him lead to a scoring chance, per analyst Corey Sznajder’s data; only 12 other NHL defensemen are worse. He averages 6.2 failed zone exits per 60 minutes; only seven other NHL defensemen are worse.

Once pinned into the defensive zone, though, he has some redeeming qualities. Zadorov gives up only 29.7 opponent shots on goal per 60 minutes of ice time, second-best on the team. His huge body can break up passes and interrupt shooting lanes effortlessly. And he obviously provides an intimidating physical presence: his 139 hits are 41 more than any other Hawk and tied for sixth in the NHL.

Lately, mental mistakes and inexcusable turnovers have been his undoing. 

One Stars goal against the Hawks last week was entirely Zadorov’s fault. He passed to the middle in front of his own goal, had the pass intercepted, skated aimlessly for a second and never identified Jason Dickinson as his man to cover, leaving Dickinson wide open in front of Kevin Lankinen for a simple tap-in. 

He nearly repeated that pattern Saturday — in a crucial third-period moment with a one-goal lead — when hurling a cross-ice zone-exit pass that Columbus’ Michael del Zotto picked off, giving him a clear lane in for a decent chance on Lankinen.

In his last six games entering Thursday, Zadorov had recorded scoring chance ratios below 50% five times and shot attempts ratios below 37% four times.

Zadorov nonetheless re-entered the Hawks’ lineup against the Red Wings because both Calvin de Haan (hip pointer) and Adam Boqvist (concussion) are day-to-day.

Those defensive absences will give Zadorov arguably an even bigger platform to prove himself as a reliable, regular top-four defenseman. With only 12 games left, this might be his final opportunity to do so before his decision day arrives this summer.

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