Nobody was surprised when the Toronto Maple Leafs signed 24-year-old KHL defenceman Nikita Zaitsev (he turned 25 in October) back in May.
The signing had been reported as a foregone conclusion for about a calendar year at that point. Zaitsev had already played seven seasons in the top Russian league where he put up some pretty decent scoring totals. It was a no-brainer for the Leafs, as they’re extremely thin in terms of right-handed defencemen both on the NHL club and in the AHL/Junior levels.
Now, 24 games into his NHL career, Zaitsev is receiving a lot of praise from his coach and much of the fan base. He trails only his defence partner Morgan Rielly in terms of time on ice per game for the Leafs and has been deployed in all situations, though his penalty killing minutes have been limited. Since being paired with Rielly, Zaitsev has been matched against the opposition’s top lines every night and the results seem to be improving as he adjusts to the NHL.
At the beginning of the season Zaitsev was thrown under the bus by being paired with Matt Hunwick and, surprise, the results were not good. In just under 65 5v5 minutes together the Leafs controlled only 44.43% of the shot attempts while Hunwick and Zaitsev were on the ice, good for a -9.09 Rel.CF%. They also controlled only 36.75% of the scoring chances when they were on the ice. That is not good, but things have been much better with Rielly, despite the tough competition. The two have played over 270 5v5 minutes together, controlling shot attempts at a 51.41% clip and 54.3% of the scoring chances, just about break-even with the team’s performance without them on the ice. This is pretty encouraging for a de facto top pairing.
The improved results are also quite prevalent when you look at Zaitsev’s individual shot attempt metrics. In the first month of the season, or the first ten games, Zaitsev was a -2.2 Rel.CF%, better than only Hunwick and Roman Polak. In the 14 games since October ended, Zaitsev is operating at a 3.23 Rel.CF% clip. Some of the credit should be given to playing with Rielly over Hunwick, but he’s been steadily improving early on. Zaitsev is a great skater, as is Rielly, which is their strongest asset. Zaitsev is the more reliable defensive player of the two at this point, but their contrasting styles seem to be meshing well early on. Zaitsev has been solid in terms of shot suppression, while Rielly always generates a tonne of shots for. Rielly could learn a thing or two about gap control from Zaitsev.
Nikita Zaitsev marking Alex Ovechkin. This is why he's here. pic.twitter.com/5aCZPzlypj
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) November 27, 2016
As far as the power play is concerned, Zaitsev hasn’t been good at all, but that’s on Babcock. Those power play minutes need to be given to Rielly, which is a story for another day.
The moral of the story here is that the results have been very encouraging for Zaitsev. He was as close to a free asset as you will find and he’s playing well in a top pairing role.
If Zaitsev can continue to perform the way he has over the last month or so, he’ll be an absolute steal for the Leafs moving forward.
*all stats are 5v5 score, zone and venue adjusted and via corsica.hockey