Zaitsev & Ozhiganov: The Maple Leafs “Quiet” Russians

In my Dec. 8, 2018, post, I reviewed and graded the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defensemen (and goalies). In that post, I commented that I hadn’t really noticed either Nikita Zaitsev or Igor Ozhiganov – the Maple Leafs’ two young, Russian defensemen – much on the ice. I gave each player a grade of C for their play.

One reader almost immediately took issue. His comments shared that I was “a tad harsh on the Russians.” He noted that Zaitsev has the “onerous task” of covering for Jake Gardiner. He also noted that Zaitsev plays difficult penalty-kill minutes, and although his possession numbers are poor, he makes more than half his starts in the defensive zone.

Nikita Zaitsev, Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs are dealing with injuries to Zaitsev and Matthews. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Ozhiganov, he noted, has had excellent possession numbers all season. In addition, he is a plus-player with a physical presence; and, he has a big shot. He suggested that it would be fairer if I raised both defensemen’s grades.

I Appreciate My Readers’ Insights

I have been covering the Toronto Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers for about a month now, and I have come to appreciate that readers see many things I don’t see and have insights I don’t have. Although I do my best, many of you who read my posts know much more than I do. I thank readers for taking time to add insights to the conversations my posts might begin. I invite your help in my continued education about the Maple Leafs.

Related – First-Third Season’s Grades: Toronto Maple Leafs’ Backend

Who Are These Young Russian Defensemen?

Moved by the reader’s thoughts, I decided to research further and share what I learned about these two young Russian defensemen — who, by the way, I have started to watch more during Maple Leafs’ games.

Nikita Zaitsev: A Steal? noted that “Zaitsev is one of those Russian gems the NHL is sometimes slow to discover.” In May 2016, the Maple Leafs signed the 6-foot-2, 190-pound defenseman after a recruiting battle with other NHL teams. Then 25-years-old, Zaitsev came ready to play. In his rookie year, he suited up for every game, had four goals and 32 assists, and looked like a steal of a deal.

Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Maple Leafs
The Leafs need to find some significant depth scoring – especially from guys like Connor Brown. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Zaitsev’s arrival in the NHL had been praised by former NHL defenseman Ryan Whitney, who played against him in the Kontinental Hockey League during the 2014-15 season. Whitney noted that Zaitsev was a strong skater and a good puck-mover, a fact Zaitsev reinforced during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey as a member of Team Russia.

Before signing with Toronto, Zaitsev played professionally in Russia from the age of 18. There, he was a two-time KHL All-Star who helped Team Russia win the bronze medal in the 2016 IIHF World Championship. During that tournament, he was named to the all-star team.

When former Maple Leafs’ general manager Lou Lamoriello signed Zaitsev to a seven-year extension worth $31.5 million (an average of $4.5 million a season) on May 2, 2017, he noted that Zaitsev was “in an elite category as far as how he can be used and how he’s trusted, and can really play in all situations” and that the Maple Leafs’ loved Zaitzev’s “compete level.”

In 2018-19, Zaitsev’s third year with the Maple Leafs, he has played every game – although several games were questionable because he has been ill. To this point, Zaitsev has no goals and three assists. Although solid in the line-up, not everyone appreciates Zaitsev’s play – one writer suggests he is a “third pairing defender who is getting paid like a middle pairing guy.”

Igor Ozhiganov: Following Zaitsev’s Path

We know less about Ozhiganov than we do Zaitsev, in part because 2018-19 is the 6-foot-2, 210-pound defenseman’s rookie season. Ozhiganov signed as a free agent with Toronto on May 17, 2018. It seems safe to assume that, after Zaitsev’s success, the Maple Leafs were inclined to seek other “hidden” Russian gems.

In Fall 2017, Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock and GM Lamoriello travelled to Russia to visit Ozhiganov. The word was that Ozhiganov played a “heavy game;” and, in fact, his high penalty-minute total in the KHL probably was a reason he hadn’t been drafted by the NHL.

Related: Maple Leafs Round Table: Zaitsev, Free Agents & the Draft

The best word we have on Ozhiganov’s skill might come from Nikita Kucherov, the great Russian star of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who tried to get the Lightning to sign him. Not because they are friends – although they are – but because Kucherov believed Ozhiganov could help the Lightning win the Stanley Cup.

Igor Ozhiganov Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Igor Ozhiganov celebrates with Morgan Rielly. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

When I began this post, I noted the reader’s comment about Ozhiganov’s strong shot. With good reason, my research suggests. In the 2016 KHL All-Star Game, Ozhiganov won the hardest shot competition with a shot clocked at 159.47 kilometres per hour. Had he been part of that year’s NHL’s hardest shot competition, only Shea Weber and Patrik Laine would have beat him.

This season, Ozhiganov and Travis Dermott have been paired on Babcock’s third defensive unit. That Ozhiganov is a big, right-shooting, defense-first player with a reputation of being able to handle rough play makes him a good partner for the offensive-minded Dermott. So far in his rookie year, he has one goal and three assists in 29 games. Time will tell how well he scores as his tenure with the Maple Leafs’ continues.

To end this post, I want to thank the reader who put me onto the Maple Leafs’ young Russian defensemen. I look forward to paying more attention to them when they are on the ice this season.