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Where there is smoke there are Flames: Is Zadorov a viable option for the Maple Leafs?

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Photo credit:Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
3 months ago
We’ve heard from Frank Seravalli, Elliotte Friedman, and now Kevin Weekes all connecting the dots between the Maple Leafs and Nikita Zadorov.
The Kevin Weekes update elaborates on what Elliotte Friedman was talking about during his appearance on Leafs Morning Take and that is the Leafs are far from the only team looking for defensive help right now. Knowing for sure that at least four teams are talking with the Flames about Zadorov that certainly puts things in the far from imminent category and couple that with Treliving’s history of not making early season trades, or many in season trades at all, expecting something done soon seems unlikely, but that doesn’t mean that the Leafs won’t be on the long path to trading for a Flames defenceman. In that spirit, it’s probably worth having an honest to goodness discussion about whether Zadorov is a good idea or a bad idea, if the Leafs are a strong possibility to land him, how to make the salary work and what the Flames might be looking for in return.
So let’s first start with whether or not Nikita Zadorov is a good idea for the Leafs. I can say “6’6, 250 lb physical stay at home defenceman” and that is already good enough for most fans and there is no doubt that it addresses a glaring need. What is interesting with Zadorov is that the surface level stats crowd are also going to quickly get onboard too although Weegar has gone from being in the 71st percentile for goals above replacement last season to the 22nd percentile this year. That’s a notable dropoff in effectiveness and may speak to the importance of having the right type of coach to get what you need to get out of Zadorov.
The numbers are going to be a bit influenced by a defence first, Darryl Sutter system in Calgary and critics will love to point out that Zadorov has been stapled to Mackenzie Weegar since Weegar’s arrival in Calgary. That partnering is a definite benefit to Zadorov, but ignores the fact that Zadorov also put up strong numbers with Erik Gudbranson as his partner in the previous season, albeit in more of a depth/sheltered role than what he currently plays in with Weegar. So you can take that as Zadorov being capable in the top four with a strong partner or he can elevate the third pairing. This honestly sounds like a player the Leafs could use.
The biggest barrier with Zadorov might be handedness, as the Leafs would likely want a right shot, but putting Zadorov on the right side isn’t out of the question either. He might not be as comfortable as TJ Brodie has become with playing on the right side of the ice, but like McCabe, Zadorov can get by in that spot as needed. With Liljegren and Timmins potentially being options again for the Leafs down the stretch, the side will matter less and the priority will be more about upgrading from Klingberg and quite possibly Giordano through any means possible. (If we are being realistic, Giordano is likely a 7th D a cup contender, not a 2nd/3rd pairing tweener.)
The NHL Edge summary on Zadorov from last season paints the picture of a decent option as well. With the help of Weegar the offensive zone time is pretty solid (37% defensive zone which is good for the 95th percentile), and as much as putting Zadorov on the powerplay is a bad idea, Zadorov looks like a great 5v5 cannon from the point. There is also some sheltering that needs to be considered here as Zadorov is still behind Andersson, Hanifin, Weegar, and Tanev on the Flames defensive depth chart, but the Flames also really just lean on these five guys when health permits.
It’s also worth pointing out that while Zadorov sees a good amount of penalty kill time, he was 4th amongst Flames defencemen in that role last season and 5th this year. He is not a “PK specialist” as some might be quick to anoint him. He would absolutely be added to the Leafs second PK unit at the very least, but he would be a work in progress, not the quick fix to the current struggling unit.
Obviously one of the big things people want from Zadorov is hitting. He has 23 so far this year and 174 last season. He’d be third on the Leafs this season and would have led the Leafs last year. Considering that he can play a regular shift while doing that, the interest in Zadorov seems justified.
The next thing that needs to be considered in the equation is the contract situation. Zadorov is on an expiring UFA contract paying him $3.75M this year. If the Flames eat half of that or they take on a random underperforming defenceman in the $4M price range as part of the deal, adding Zadorov is fairly easy. The expiring contract is still something to chew on as the Leafs need to show far more than they’ve shown this season to immediately jump to being buyers on a potential rental player. With Zadorov being 29 when he hits free agency, he’s not aged out of being a potential contributor for the next few seasons, but he could price himself out of that situation, as even his current AAV seems like it would be too high for what the future (or present) hold for him. It’s not as simple as the Leafs needing a defenceman, Zadorov looking to be available and Toronto pulling the trigger, especially when the price isn’t going to be cheap here. There is also the fact that although a certain Leafs defenceman being shown the door looks like a great path to upgrading, if that isn’t viable, or desired by the Leafs, the ways of freeing up money for Zadorov become a lot more complicated, even if Calgary retains half of the cap hit.
When looking at whether a deal can make sense it also seems important we consider what the Flames are looking to get out of it and this is one area the Leafs have a bit of an advantage as Brad Treliving is very familiar with this roster and the organizational depth. He might not be as familiar about the direction that Craig Conroy is going in, but the current state knowledge is a huge help. All signs in Calgary are pointing to an overhaul. Zadorov, Tanev, Hanifin, and Lindholm are all likely to hit free agency. The Flames expensive additions like Huberdeau, Kadri, Coleman, and Markstrom are all players that Conroy is more likely to try to find new homes for than build around so it seems like futures are going to be the way to go. The Leafs are somewhat limited in what they have to trade in that regard as well. The Leafs lack a 2nd round pick in the draft from this year until the end of time, but the reality is it probably costs a 1st to land Zadorov today anyways. When it comes to futures the Leafs are willing to move they are limited too and perhaps the best case scenario is that Nick Robertson builds a case for himself as a potential trade chip (assuming the Leafs wouldn’t rather retain Robertson and his reasonable contract to help with depth scoring.) Beyond Robertson the list of potential options is basically a run through of the top of the Leafs prospect list, but playing matchmaker on trades is somewhat of a fools errand. The reality is the Flames will be most likely be looking for futures and the Leafs will also be asking for some salary cap assistance and that will drive the price up.
Finally, the question needs to be asked, “are the Leafs one of the top teams in the hunt for Zadorov?” The Treliving factor definitely points to “yes.” While we don’t know if Treliving’s affinity for Flames players will mirror Kyle Dubas’ appreciate for Soo Greyhounds, there is obviously a benefit in going with what you know and that is going to spark some interest. The fact that the Flames potentially have Hanifin and Tanev as players available too means that most teams looking for defence have no choice but to start with Calgary. Treliving worked with Conroy and the comfort in dealing with each other could help move things along for the Leafs as well, even if it ends up being another player involved.
The long and short of it is that Friday night is a good night for Leafs to keep an eye on the Flames defence as they watch the game. See what they like and don’t like about it and whether the system that Calgary plays lends itself to its players adapting to the Leafs system easily. Zadorov is an interesting target and the Flames are highly probable trade partners, the Leafs could do worse and they have.
Data sourced from Evolving Hockey, Capfriendly, and NHL Edge

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