What are the Chicago Blackhawks going to do with Nikita Zadorov?

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - MARCH 23: Juho Lammikko #83 of the Florida Panthers is pressured by Nikita Zadorov #16 of the Chicago Blackhawks along the boards at the United Center on March 23, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Panthers 3-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - MARCH 23: Juho Lammikko #83 of the Florida Panthers is pressured by Nikita Zadorov #16 of the Chicago Blackhawks along the boards at the United Center on March 23, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Panthers 3-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

The off-season after the 2019-20 season was a quick and dirty affair unless you were one of the teams that were left behind for the NHL’s return to play. Chicago was not one of those teams and took part in the postseason. They were bounced by Vegas, and shortly thereafter started a series of moves that raised a few eyebrows.

One of those was a trade with the Avalanche that saw Brandon Saad being exchanged for Nikita Zadorov, who arrived on the Chicago Blackhawks roster an expiring contract. At the time, the trade was…” questioned”, to put it diplomatically. Now, with the benefit of the shortened season more or less behind us, it’s worth considering what the next step with Zadorov should be.

To begin with, it’s probably worth looking at Saad’s year with Colorado. Did he have a good season? Sadly, at least for Blackhawks fans, Saad had a decent year.

Even compared to past seasons he’s doing well. He’s bagged 15 goals and posted 24 points total in 44 games. Over a full 82 game season, he’d probably end up with over 20 goals and somewhere around 40-50 points for the year if he hadn’t been injured. Wouldn’t Chicago have loved that production from a two-way forward that can kill penalties? Yes, without question.

If Saad had gone on to have a bad season then none of this would matter. Chicago’s fans wouldn’t really have much to grumble about because no rebuilding team wants mediocre aging players in the lineup unless it’s to help keep them above the salary cap floor. Unfortunately, Saad had a good season which increases the level of scrutiny that Zadorov will now receive in the off-season.

The big defenseman arrived with a lot of question marks, and probably at the top of the list was, “will Zadorov be the kind of defenseman that Chicago can build around for years to come?” Why else would Bowman trade a productive player that also happens to be well-liked by fans? It would have to be to acquire a significant talent, right? One would hope that would be the case, but so far that kind of play hasn’t materialized from Zadorov.

Mark Lazerus and Scott Powers touched on the question of what to do about Zadorov in a recent podcast. They raise a lot of these issues, including that he wants to stay and seems open to making a deal that would see him playing in Chicago. This is certainly something that could happen. Bowman gave up Saad for Zadorov, and on some level, I’d have to think he wants to hang on to Zadorov to justify the deal. Maybe that isn’t a good way to look at it, but if Zadorov were traded right now what would the impact on the team be? Personally, I think his absence would be negligible, and that sending somewhere else wouldn’t be a big deal.

The problem would come from the fact that, if Zadorov is traded away, the return probably wouldn’t be a player, pick, or prospect that is of Saad’s calibre. It would be selling at a loss. This would essentially be admitting to having gambled and lost on the deal with Colorado. It happens, but it’s not a good look.

Chicago could also let Zadorov walk, but why? What would be the point of not even offering him a deal? This scenario makes the trade with Colorado a salary dump that Chicago didn’t need. The Blackhawks don’t have cap issues right now, and they certainly aren’t good enough to be arbitrarily dealing away top-6 forwards, you know, just because. If they were even half-serious about letting Zadorov test free agency, then they might as well send him to Rockford and dare another team to claim him off waivers.

Lastly, while I don’t like being cynical, there’s an element of this that I can’t shake. Trading Saad feels like it was a deliberate move to make the Blackhawks worse. Chicago knew they were starting a rebuild, and Bowman probably optimistically saw a defenseman that might be a good fit if he panned out because of his potential ceiling, as well as his age. Bowman didn’t go out during the season and trade away the team’s top talent to orchestrate a tank. Maybe bringing in Zadorov was more of a pre-emptive strike to undermine the team.

It’s hard to look at the lineup Chicago iced on opening day for 2020-21 and think it was even as good as the team that lost to Vegas. I’d go so far as to say the Blackhawks were worse. Injuries aside, losing both Corey Crawford and Saad wasn’t going to improve the team. There were no players in the system ready to step up and fill those holes in the lineup.

Again, we’re back to the gambling, but that’s what this could have been. A bet on Zadorov improving over a couple of years to the point where nobody would complain about Saad having been exchanged for the big blueliner. A short-term loss for a long-term gain, hopefully. If Chicago was ready to be bad this year, then they could afford to take the chance that Zadorov wasn’t necessarily going to help the team very much at all, at least in the present season.

In fact, losing a lot probably helps the Blackhawks get a better draft spot. Even if this is the case, it’s hard to see how Zadorov isn’t back with Chicago, despite not definitively showing that he’s head and shoulders a superior player to the younger guys. If something like this were the plan, then they’d need to give him another year or so to improve.

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Will Zadorov be back in Chicago? After seeing him play for 52 games it would be hard to say yes for certain, but harder to say no. Zadorov played as advertised. A big strong physical defenseman that was going to deliver hit after hit after hit when he was in the lineup.

The problem comes from the fact that Zadorov didn’t have the impact on the team defensively everyone had hoped for. If he’s not back next year, don’t be surprised. The thing is, dealing to another organization isn’t likely. Any way you break it down, it would be a bit of a shock if he weren’t back next year.