Well-timed Zadorov trade nets Flames flexibility and youth moving forward

The Hockey Central panel discusses the Vancouver Canucks acquiring Nikita Zadorov from the Calgary Flames in exchange for a 2024 fifth-round pick and a 2026 third-round pick, and what it means for the two teams moving forward.

CALGARY – Craig Conroy said from Day 1 that he doesn’t want anyone in his dressing room who doesn’t want to be here.

However, as a rookie GM, he couldn’t possibly have responded to Nikita Zadorov’s highly inappropriate trade request (through his agent’s tweet) by swapping him out right away.

Even though his Flames teammates were upset by the defenceman’s outspokenness, Conroy had to wait several weeks before doing what was best for the team.

After hearing from GMs around the league, he decided on Thursday that the best offer came from a division rival who acquired Zadorov without insisting the Flames retain some of his $3.75 million salary.

The return: a third-rounder in 2026 and a fifth-rounder in 2024.

In a world of social media hyperbole, it’s entirely predictable that the return for Zadorov would initially be deemed underwhelming.

Because of the big Russian’s popularity in Calgary, some were somehow led to believe the third-pairing rental was worthy of a first or second-round return.

Remember, he was acquired in 2021 as an RFA for a third-rounder.

One could argue he’s a slightly better player than he was then, but he’s also three years older and is now a four-month rental who risked being injured and completely worthless with every game he played as a Flame.

As often happens with hockey’s hometown heroes, critics vastly overvalued the big-hitting 28-year-old, who can still be an adventure defensively.

It’s important to understand there’s plenty more the Flames accumulated than just the two picks from Vancouver. 

What Conroy has done is set himself up to get younger, get a look at even more of his farmhands and set himself up for some of the bigger decisions at hand.

He’s done so by adding trade chips (picks) and valuable cap space while not eating up any of the three salary retention slots that could ultimately land the team beefier assets in the inevitable upcoming trades, two or three he may have to make with UFAs Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev.

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Their fate is by no means sealed, as the team continues to play better, which could alter the approach each player and the team take as the trade deadline nears.

There certainly is no sense this deal will kickstart an imminent swap meet, as this GM still wants to see how things unfold over the next month or so with three of his cornerstones intact.

But with the ability to use a little cash to sweeten a deal of any sort, when it comes time to the bigger deals, the Flames have even more negotiating power.

Teams around the league will see this deal and realize Conroy is open to exploring other possibilities – deals he’ll have the luxury of waiting much longer to execute as the pressure of the deadline inspires other teams to up the ante.

Ultimately, those are the deals that will have far more to say about the future of the club than a fifth defenceman on an expiring contract.

It also allows the Flames room to recall more youngsters like the ones he feels helped turn his team’s season around at the beginning of November.

“This gives us cap flexibility and an opportunity to bring up a really good young player,” Conroy told Sportsnet moments after making the deal.

“$3.75 million for a third pair defenceman is a lot of money and that cap space opens up more possibilities.”      

The youngster he is no doubt referring to is 6-foot-3, 208-pound Ilya Solovyov, who made his NHL debut earlier this year. 

You can expect the 23-year-old Belarussian to be recalled as early as Friday, so he can face Zadorov and the Canucks at home Saturday.

No one is expecting him to be as impactful as Connor Zary or Martin Pospisil have been to change the makeup and mojo of the team, but getting these guys NHL time has always been part of Conroy’s master plan.

Surely Matt Coronato will soon be recalled after scoring seven goals and adding eight assists in 12 outings with the Wranglers.

Cole Schwindt and Adam Klapka could also get a look, especially if any of the big boys are swapped out. 

The more he can assess his prospects the better prepared he can be to move forward with the inevitable retool required in town.

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“I know people want a first-round pick, but this is the market,” said Conroy, who proved he went with the highest bidder by overlooking the fact the Canucks were the Flames biggest rivals when he played.

“We get two assets in return for him, and them taking all of his salary without retention is huge.

“This was the right move for the team.”

Anyone who wants the team to continue taking a significantly longer-term view of this franchise shouldn’t have a beef with the move.

This moves the club forward and does so in a timely fashion.

Zadorov wasn’t a distraction, but there was no need to wait much longer on the one UFA who sealed his own fate with the ill-timed, poorly crafted trade request. 

The obvious question is what the move means in terms of the other UFAs – a question Conroy is never going to answer publicly.

Realistically, their fate is largely in their own hands anyway, based on their desires and contract demands.

“It doesn’t affect others at all,” he said.

“I have a plan in my head and will keep working through it.”   

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