The 2016-17 campaign wasn’t quite a dream season for Nikita Zadorov, but he undeniably took some steps forward in his development. He skated more than 19 minutes per night with the Avalanche, managed 10 points from the back end and was a physical presence on the blueline. But it turns out an encore might not be in the cards for the 22-year-old defenseman. Instead, he could be heading to the KHL.
Over the weekend, a report from Sport-Express’ Igor Eronko indicated that Zadorov, who is a restricted free agent and still without a new deal, has come to a “mutual agreement” with CSKA Moscow, and the deal with the Russian side could see the young rearguard spend the coming season in the KHL if he doesn’t receive a better offer from the Avalanche. As it stands, Eronko reported, the issue with Colorado is the term on a new deal, and if the two sides don’t come to an agreement by the end of the month, Zadorov may pack up and head to the KHL.
Some may not look at Zadorov’s potential departure as a significant loss for the Avalanche, and from a pure statistical standpoint, that’s not far off. Zadorov hasn’t been an all-out offensive stud — he has no goals and 12 points in 78 games in Colorado — and he may not be ready for a starring role on the Avalanche’s top pairing. But, again, he showed some positive signs. He took the second-toughest minutes, facing top competition on a nightly basis, and maintained a halfway-decent possession rate considering he was skating on the NHL’s worst team.
But the biggest thing about losing Zadorov wouldn’t just be that the Avalanche are out a somewhat promising rearguard. No, it’s that without Zadorov, Colorado’s blueline would be a ghost town.
If the season were to start today, the Avalanche would have three seasoned NHL defensemen under contract. Erik Johnson would be the wily veteran, having suited up for 575 games, with Tyson Barrie’s 338 games making him the second-most experienced defenseman, ahead of Mark Barberio, who has skated in 193 games. After that, the combined experience of the remaining defensemen the Avalanche have locked up is 86 games, little more than a full season. Yet, somehow, Colorado would be expected to ice a somewhat capable defense.
So, is there any way to make that a reality?
Well, with Zadorov not under contract, let’s leave him out of any potential Avalanche blueline for now. That leaves Colorado with Johnson, Barrie and Barberio as a starting point. The next thing to do, and the easiest, is to dig into the minors and see who can make the full-time leap to the NHL. Some, such as David Warsofsky and Duncan Siemens, have spent time in the big league before, but realistically, only one name pops out: Chris Bigras.
The 22-year-old, a second-round pick of the Avalanche in 2013, spent the entire campaign in the AHL this past season after cracking the Colorado lineup for 31 games as a rookie the year prior. Bigras produced, too. In 45 games, he scored five goals and 19 points, showing the same offensive ability he showcased in major junior. The projection for Bigras was that he could crack the Avalanche lineup this coming season regardless, and it seems even more likely given Colorado has yet to really fill out their defensive depth chart with readymade NHLers.
After Bigras, however, there are question-marks. Andrei Mironov is considered to have potential to make the big club. The 22-year-old played 110 games for the KHL’s Dynamo Moscow over the past three seasons. Anton Lindholm, 22, also has potential to earn a spot given he played well as a rookie in the AHL this past season, putting up two goals and 13 points in 62 games. And he has pro experience, as well. He got into 12 games with the Avalanche in 2016-17 and was a Swedish League regular the two years prior. Beyond that, though, the blueline is even thinner.
But Colorado doesn’t have to limit themselves to their farm system, and that’s exactly what GM Joe Sakic should be thinking about right now. Options are available for the Avalanche to bolster this defense. The most obvious, of course, is trading Matt Duchene to bring a rearguard to Denver.
For months now, Duchene has been the center of trade speculation, and the piece the Avalanche reportedly want in return is a top-four NHL defenseman. That makes sense given the current makeup of the Avalanche blueline, but whether or not such a trade comes to pass is hard to say. It was believed it would have happened by now, yet Duchene is still a member of the Avalanche. The Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins have been mentioned among the potential suitors for Duchene — and all have pieces that could help in Colorado — but nothing has come of it. And, until something does, Duchene’s existence on the Avalanche roster doesn’t solve anything defensively.
The next step, then, is taking to the open market.
If Colorado isn’t concerned with the age of the defenders they bring aboard, there’s some value to be had in landing a puck-mover such as Andrei Markov, if he’s willing to entertain the option. If price is a concern with Markov, there’s always the opportunity to check in with Brian Campbell. He took a cut rate on a one-year deal in Chicago, and while it would surely cost the Avalanche more than it cost the Blackhawks to bring him aboard, Campbell is still more than capable defensively. Then there are other options such as Johnny Oduya, Dennis Wideman and Roman Polak, each of whom won’t bring much scoring punch but can definitely help out in a second- or third-pairing role.
Maybe the most intriguing defenseman on the list, though, is Cody Franson. He’s bounced around the league a bit in the past three seasons, from Toronto to Nashville and then Buffalo, but Franson has some offensive ability, can take on second-pairing minutes and run a power play. Franson won’t exactly come cheap, but he could be a nice addition into the middle of a defensive depth chart that is sorely lacking. And adding Franson as well as, say, Oduya or Polak, would turn an empty defensive depth chart into something that at least resembles an NHL lineup. Would it be successful? Probably not, but it’s better than trotting out and potentially damaging the confidence of still-growing prospects.
And that’s Zadorov’s decision matters so much to the makeup of the Avalanche blueline next season. If he decides to head back to the KHL, Sakic and Co. are going to need to find a way to beef up a blueline that will be in dire need of some help, and will likely need to dig into the market to do so. Should he stick around, however, Colorado could be set to hand Zadorov more responsibility and see if the club can get by with maybe one minor signing to add to their depth on the back end.
So, to answer the question, sure, it’s possible for the Avalanche to ice a capable defense next season. But even with Zadorov sticking around and the potential for Duchene to be flipped for some help, don’t expect a patchwork defense to help the Avalanche dig their way out of the league’s basement.