The Chicago Blackhawks were reportedly listening to offers for defenseman Nikita Zadorov at the NHL Trade Deadline, but ultimately decided not to move him. However, that doesn’t mean that the two sides will stay together for much longer. As Ben Pope writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, the Blackhawks have dropped some hints that they are not content with the big blue liner and time is running out for him to prove himself.
Zadorov, 25, is in his first season in Chicago after coming over from the Colorado Avalanche in the Brandon Saad trade this past off-season. The Blackhawks hoped that Zadorov would step into a lineup that was missing many difference-makers on the back end and would transform into a bona fide top pair defenseman. While Zadorov has still been impressive as a physical force and solid defender, there has not been much else to praise about Zadorov’s game this season. He has been firmly entrenched as a second-pair defender in terms of time on ice, is fifth in defensive scoring and even lower in per-game production, and is on pace for a career-high in giveaways, even in a shortened season. Zadorov has merely continued to play the same role in Chicago as he did in Colorado, that of a complementary stay-at-home defenseman. While that is not without value, it isn’t what was expected of the 2013 first-round pick and may not be worth the cost to the Blackhawks. The team has not-so-subtly expressed their frustration recently, acquiring a younger and similar style of defender in Riley Stillman and then making Zadorov a healthy scratch on deadline day after discussing him with other teams beforehand.
This off-season, Zadorov presents a number of challenges to Chicago. The impending restricted free agent will need a new contract, which at a minimum will require a $3.2MM qualifying offer. However, despite his underwhelming effort this season, Zadorov can probably argue for making more than that and has the option to file for arbitration to support that claim. The problem for the Blackhawks is that they have very few contracts coming off the books this off-season and are projected to have limited cap flexibility to make other moves. Retaining Zadorov at a higher number even further reduces that cap space without making a material change to their roster, which is only a fringe playoff team this season. A potential arbitration case makes using their cap space even more problematic. If the relatively young blue liner demands a long-term deal as well, that becomes an issue with a number of young players already pushing for play time. Beyond the actual contract, the only way that Chicago can ensure that they even retain Zadorov’s RFA rights beyond July 21 is to protect him in the upcoming NHL Expansion Draft. With Duncan Keith and Connor Murphy as virtual locks to be protecting, adding Zadorov to that group would mean exposing valuable veteran Calvin de Haan and the recently-acquired Stillman. Yet, if they don’t protect Zadorov he could very easily be selected and lost for nothing.
In order to avoid a difficult expansion decision and possible contract battle and arbitration case, the Blackhawks may decide to re-ignite trade talks for Zadorov once their season has come to an end. Until then, Pope notes that Zadorov will be given every chance to prove that he is worthy of a longer look in Chicago. With de Haan and Adam Boqvist currently injured and the Blackhawks fighting for a playoff spot, Zadorov has the chance to step up and finally show that he can be a complete top-four defenseman. If he succeeds, perhaps all of the off-season issues fall by the wayside in favor of keeping a rare physical specimen and good young defender at all costs. However, if he falters then the partnership between the Blackhawks and Zadorov could be coming to an end sooner rather than later.