Cleared for takeoff, the Avalanche’s Nikita Zadorov has learned his lesson


Unlike a year ago at this time, Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov has friends in high places within the organization.

To begin last season, the big, hard-hitting Russian defenseman was deep in the organization’s doghouse, serving as a healthy scratch for opening night in New York after reporting to training camp late, overweight and out of shape. In the ensuing month of the season, he was benched for long stretches during games — once for an entire third period — because of shoddy play the team deemed a lack of effort.

Zadorov, who was 22 at the time, had his new two-year, $4.3 million bridge contract, but he didn’t have the respect of the coaching staff and general manager Joe Sakic. Zadorov didn’t agreed to his contract until training camp began and then he was held up in Canada because of immigration issues.

“I wasn’t ready. I was traveling everywhere. I was in Ottawa waiting for my visa. It was hard for me,” Zadorov said Saturday after training camp at Family Sports Center.

This year, Zadorov is carrying himself like a mature and seasoned professional. He returned to Denver a month ago to acclimate to altitude and has fared well on all the various physical tests the team conducts.

“Now, I’m all settled. I’m all ready, eating clean — everything,” Zadorov said. “I finished the testing and I continue to build and build.”

Zadorov finished last season partnering with Tyson Barrie and that pairing was in place Saturday, after Barrie missed Day 1 of camp Friday because of minor muscle strain. Coach Jared Bednar said Zadorov is out of the dog house and in good standing upstairs.

“Contract aside — that’s not my concern. Certainly, you want your guys in training camp from Day 1. The difference for me is his conditioning. He was heavier last year. His body fat was up last year,” Bednar said. “This (camp) is the sort of push that we wanted him to make — and the maturity we wanted to see out of him as a pro. It certainly looks (good) this year. His testing is better. He’s lighter, quicker. Everyone of the tests I’ve seen is better than last year, so that tells me he’s more disciplined away from the rink in the summertime. Hopefully that maturity, that route he’s taking, leads him to a better season.”

A good season for the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Zadorov would mean he’s the team’s most physical defenseman and the last guy an opposing player would want to fight. Zadorov won’t often be found on the power play but he’s a primary penalty-killer who isn’t afraid to produce the big hit that draws attention to the opposition’s toughest player as well as the league.

“I didn’t have any of the big, big ones last year — the ones that cause the line brawl. But I was still finishing guys and maybe I’ve established myself in the league, like no one wants to come at me anymore,” Zadorov said. “But the league is doing a good of protecting us, with the head hits and stuff. You’re not going to get jumped from behind like the old days.”

It’s about playing on the right side of the edge. Players like Zadorov can really hurt a team if he crosses the line.

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