For some guys, 500 games in the NHL sneaks up on you a little bit.
You’re a young guy making his name in the league one day and then, before you know it, you’re an established veteran with a whole lot of games under your belt.
That’s not how it feels for Nikita Zadorov.
The Calgary Flames defenceman was set to play in his 500th game on Monday night against the Los Angeles Kings. Earlier in the day, he laughed when he was asked about the career milestone.
“Four different teams, lots of coaches, lots of teammates. It took me nine years to play 500 games, which is way too much, I feel like,” Zadorov said with a smile. “I do think that mentally, physically, the way my game goes and everything, I think I’m in some of the best shape (I’ve ever been in).”
It’s true that Zadorov’s career hasn’t always followed a straight line. Since making his NHL debut with the Buffalo Sabres early in the 2013-’14 season, he’s bounced around a fair bit.
He played 67 games with the Sabres over two seasons, before joining the Colorado Avalanche for a six-year stretch that saw him make 289 appearances. Then, there was a one-year stint with the Chicago Blackhawks that saw him play 55 games before he landed in Calgary in the summer of 2021.
Monday’s tilt with the Kings was set to be his 89th regular-season skate with the Flames.
So yes, Zadorov’s moved around a bit, but he seems to have found a home in Calgary.
The Flames re-signed him to a two-year contract worth US$3.75 million per season in the summer.
“He’s only 27, so you’re still searching for that consistency out of him, but I think he’s taken a big step in that,” said Flames head coach Darryl Sutter. “It’s something we talked about in the summer when we lost Erik (Gudbranson, in free agency), that he had to take that part of it more.
“Especially with (Oliver Kylington and Chris Tanev) not available or not available more often, I think he’s done a very good job.”
Zadorov has taken on a bigger role this season, often playing with MacKenzie Weegar on the Flames’ second pairing. He’s played more 20 minutes in seven games already this season after doing so only five times in the entirety of the 2021-22 campaign.
Part of that is injuries and the availability of other Flames d-men, but he’s been given a job and he’s largely risen to the occasion.
“It’s everything. Confidence, experience, (with) d-men, I feel like you need to play some games to know patterns and where you have to be on the ice in certain situations,” Zadorov said. “Confidence is the biggest thing for me, personally. When I see the coach trusts me in a lot of different situations, that helps a lot. Playing good minutes in different situations on the ice.”
By his own admission, a lot of the improvements in Zadorov’s game have come about as the result of work he’s putting in off the ice. That’s not exactly surprising and is probably true for every player who has ever played professional hockey, but Zadorov poked fun at himself again when he was asked about that off-ice work.
He’s figured out what he needs to do to maximize his skill set, and it’s paying dividends.
“I wish I had this mind when I was 20, I’d be a way better defenceman than I am,” Zadorov said with a big smile. “It takes time to get mature.”
Now, though, Zadorov seems to have his stride. He’s playing arguably the best hockey of his career, taking on a bigger role for the Flames and earning praise from his head coach.
It took him a while to get to 500 games, but he’s got his sights set on playing a lot more.
“It’s only 500,” Zadorov said. “I’m hoping to get to 1,000, at least.”