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Revisiting Nikita Zadorov’s potential fit with the Maple Leafs

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Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Nick Richard
19 days ago
A little more than a month away from the trade deadline, the Leafs have many of the same needs they entered the season with. General manager Brad Treliving will likely kick tires on depth scoring options and look to add another reliable forward to the bottom six, but upgrading the defensive core remains the top priority.
The Leafs have been tied to a few different potential trade targets dating back to last summer, including Nikita Zadorov, who they were heavily rumoured to be interested in before the Calgary Flames dealt the disgruntled defender to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for a third-round pick and fifth-round pick back in early December. Now, it appears that Zadorov could be on the block once again as things haven’t gone according to plan early in his Canucks tenure.
Making sense of the Nikita Zadorov trade rumours
It stands to reason that the Leafs would still be interested, and the acquisition cost shouldn’t be overly prohibitive with the Canucks reportedly seeking to clear cap space, but is Zadorov the missing piece to the Leafs’ blue line, or would they be better served spending their limited trade assets elsewhere?
The Leafs’ defensive unit as a whole has struggled this season, but there have been some positive developments along the way. Morgan Rielly is probably playing the best hockey of his career, getting it done at both ends of the ice while facing stiff competition. Jake McCabe has been a physical force on the back end and has settled into a prominent role after a rocky start to the season. Simon Benoit, who was cast aside by the lowly Anaheim Ducks and started the season in the AHL, has established himself as one of the more physical and reliable defensive players on the team.
Even with those players stepping up and Timothy Liljegren continuing to develop his game, the Leafs haven’t been able to consistently defend at the level that will be required for a deep playoff run. Treliving has all but admitted to not having the desired personnel on the roster on more than one occasion, and that has only been exasperated by age catching up to heavily relied-upon players like TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano.
So, what kind of player should the Leafs be targeting to solidify their blue line?
When the Leafs acquired Luke Schenn ahead of last year’s deadline, few could have predicted that he would play alongside Rielly throughout the playoffs and perform as well as he did, but his play was a big part of Toronto taking down Tampa Bay in the first round. The Leafs should still be aiming higher than that, but finding the right fit will be key.
No one is going to mistake Zadorov for a true top-pairing defenceman, but he does check a lot of boxes for the Leafs. He’s got great size at 6’6″ and almost 240 pounds, and he has been one of the more physically imposing players in the league for a number of years. Zadorov is known for dishing out bone-crushing hits, and he won’t shy away from dropping the gloves when need be.
He hasn’t excelled on the penalty kill traditionally, but Zadorov’s reach and ability to take away time and space in the defensive zone would be an asset to a struggling Leafs penalty kill unit, and he can chip in at the other end of the ice as well. Zadorov has shown a willingness to take some chances and attack off the rush, and he also has a heavy shot from the point that helped him double his career-high in goals with 14 a season ago.
Zadorov has typically put up strong defensive results, but he has rarely been tasked with facing top competition – something that would almost certainly be in the job description for whoever the Leafs acquire to upgrade their back end. He can play on either side but has looked more comfortable on his natural left side, and having him take on more difficult minutes while playing on the right is a lot to ask.
On the surface, Zadorov appears to be a fit for what the Leafs need, albeit an imperfect one. He brings several attributes that would be valuable to any playoff team, but banking on him to be the guy who plays alongside Rielly and knocks everyone else down a notch on the depth chart is a risky proposition. Zadorov averaged just over 18 minutes of ice time per game with the Flames before being dealt to Vancouver, and he is averaging less than that with the Canucks, so there are reasons to wonder if he would be as effective in a larger role.
Zadorov makes sense as a trade target for the Leafs, but perhaps more so as a consolation prize or secondary option should they strike out on more suitable options to handle heavy minutes alongside Rielly. His style of play would certainly alter the mix on the Leafs’ back end, and that could constitute an upgrade in and of itself, but adding him to this group would likely mean the Leafs would still be too reliant on the likes of TJ Brodie and Jake McCabe.
In a trade market with limited options to fill that top-pairing role, Zadorov might be the best the Leafs can do, but that doesn’t mean they should settle and make a move before exhausting other options ahead of the trade deadline.
Statistics from NaturalStatTrick.com

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