During Friday’s feisty affair in Toronto, Nikita Zadorov flattened Tyler Bertuzzi with an open-ice hit and then stopped and scanned his surroundings, wondering if anybody would challenge him to a fight.
You know the look — Who wants a piece of me?
Calgary Flames general manager Craig Conroy is suddenly asking the same — Who wants a piece of Zadorov?
Shortly after Big Z lowered the boom on Bertuzzi with a clean check, Flames fans were blindsided by news of the 28-year-old defenceman’s apparent request for a trade out of Calgary. In fact, as he shared a highlight of Friday’s thump, Zadorov’s agent dropped a not-so-subtle hint the Maple Leafs might be interested in his services.
In a social-media post, Gold Star Hockey’s Dan Milstein wrote: “Here comes Zadorov train, get your #LeafsForever tickets today.”
Friday’s late-night scoop — initially reported by Kevin Weekes and quickly followed by word from Pierre LeBrun that Zadorov’s camp is “hoping for a quick resolution” — came as a shock to many because this pending unrestricted free agent has previously been adamant about wanting to be part of the long-term plan in Cowtown.
Zadorov, who is currently collecting a cap hit of US$3.75 million, declared at the end of last season that he’d “love to be a Calgary Flame forever.”
‘I want to stay here and prove it … be a leader on the ice, do my job’
“I’ve been obviously talking about staying here. I like it here,” he reiterated during a training camp chat with Postmedia. “Now, I have to go out on the ice and show it that I want to stay here and prove it, you know? For me, just play my game, be a leader on the ice, do my job.”
So what changed?
It certainly seems that Zadorov, who has always believed he belongs in a top-four role, is frustrated with his workload so far this fall, which has included fewer shifts on the penalty-kill. He has averaged just over 18 minutes per night of total ice-time, fifth among Flames defencemen. Rasmus Andersson, Noah Hanifin, MacKenzie Weegar and Chris Tanev are all being tapped more often.
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During Friday’s 5-4 shootout loss in Toronto, Zadorov logged a season-low 15:33 while skating alongside Nick DeSimone on the third pairing. He contributed a second-period snipe, an important kick-starter as his squad clawed back from a three-goal deficit to claim at least a single point in the standings.
The bruising blue-liner might also be losing patience as he waits for an extension offer. From a long list of could-be UFAs, the Flames have prioritized contract talks with Hanifin and Elias Lindholm, although those have been on pause after a sluggish start prompted debate about the possibility of dismantling the current core.
Now in his third campaign in Calgary, Zadorov has provided a physical presence, strong skating abilities and a wicked shot that resulted in a career-high 14 goals in 2022-23. The Russian rearguard has emerged as a fan favourite and a booming voice in the locker room, and his always-honest media interviews have become a can’t-miss. Heading into Saturday’s clash with the Senators in Ottawa, it’s certainly no surprise that he leads the team in hits.
With Friday’s reports, however, Zadorov could become a distraction. Conroy will weigh the immediate offers — the Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks have been mentioned as potential suitors — with the temptation to wait until closer to the trade deadline, when every could-be contender seems to be shopping for size, snarl and defensive depth.
At 6-foot-6 and 248 lbs., Zadorov is already the biggest dude on Calgary’s roster. Now, he’s a big trade chip, too.
Without a wiretap on Conroy’s phone, it’s hard to say if the general manager was left feeling belted like Bertuzzi or if he figured it was trending in this direction. But as he ponders his options, the question is this — Who wants a piece of Big Z?
Wes Gilbertson and Danny Austin have been covering the Flames for years and know what makes the team tick. Have questions? They have the answers – or the contacts to track them down. Send your questions to email@example.com