The Toronto Maple Leafs are ready to start their rebuilding plan in earnest. The previous draft was a good indicator that they were serious about jumpstarting a franchise that had been dwelling in mediocrity for far too long. They started by acquiring as many picks as they could. They ended up drafting a total of nine players, which was up from six the previous year and five the year before that.
Smart drafting and developing of their prospects is the first key to improvement. The trade deadline approaches and the Leafs should look to jettison as many roster players as they can. The objective is to gather picks and prospects that can be used in the near future. They appear to be well on their way and already have 11 draft picks lined up for the 2016 draft.
Smart drafting isn’t the only key to franchise success. It’s also about recruiting players, both from North American and abroad, to come over to your team and eventually suit up and make an impact.
Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas are in charge of finding those types of players to come to Toronto. The last year has seen them tap into a wealth of talent, albeit with a certain stigma attached to it. They have been mining Russia for prospects and appear to have found a couple of potential hits.
Everyone knows who Artemi Panarin is at this point. He came over from Russia and signed a deal with the Chicago Blackhawks. He is currently ripping up the NHL on the top line with Patrick Kane. The Leafs hope they found their own Panarin, in both the form of a forward and defenseman.
Nikita Soshnikov, Forward
Many are still wondering exactly who Nikita Soshnikov is. The young Russian is currently playing his trade with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. He’s a speedster with skill to burn and has received high praise from the coaching staff and from Leafs management.
Although he is slight of frame, he is strong on the puck and is able to use his vision to generate scoring chances for himself and his linemates. Despite playing in the KHL, he didn’t have the amount of years Panarin had before making the jump. He’s had a solid season with the Marlies and is showing signs that he may be a valuable player down the road for Toronto.
Nikita Zaitsev, Defenseman
The most recent report was that the Maple Leafs would be signing the talented Russian to a contract this coming summer. This move was in the works for a while, as Zaitsev visited Toronto last year and was impressed with what he saw. He then returned to Russia to honour the final year of his contract with CSKA Moscow.
Zaitsev would be a nice addition to the Maple Leafs’ blueline. He’s young and should come at a relatively cheap price. In addition, he is a right-handed shot, has a laser of a shot from the point, and plays a solid two-way game. Those are all good qualities that the Leafs are looking for.
The Buds aren’t the deepest team overall on the backend. That’s what makes pursuing Zaitsev a smart move. He has years of KHL experience to aid in his transition and he is having a good season, recording six goals and 18 assists for 24 points in 41 games. Of course, there are areas he will need to improve on when he makes the transition to North America.
He’s listed at 6 feet 2 inches and 195 pounds. He has the necessary size, but will need to pack some muscle onto his frame. The rumoured contract will be a single-season deal. They Leafs will then look to extend him if he meets their expectations. If, for whatever reason, he doesn’t pan out, it’s a year deal that will be off the books fast.
All signs point to Zaitsev making a successful transition. He plays a smart game, isn’t reckless, and is confident in his skills. You can teach systems, but natural born skill is much harder to find. Add in the tutelage of head coach Mike Babcock and the dynamic Russian has a real chance to succeed in the NHL.
Signings like these truly show me that the Maple Leafs are willing to pursue all options in order to get more competitive. It’s the perfect time to take a risk, especially if they strike gold.