What Can the Maple Leafs Expect from Nikita Zaitsev?

The Toronto Maple Leafs are right in the middle of their very crucial rebuild. The plan to make the great franchise competitive again has so far gone according to plan, with the Maple Leafs shedding veteran players and acquiring draft picks and young assets for the future.

The management group has started off incredibly well. Already having William Nylander in the system was a bonus, but then going out and drafting Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and more was definitely a step in the right direction. Those are the prospects that are expected to lead the team back to glory, albeit in a few years time.

Every strong team in the NHL has something in common. Their defensive core and goaltending is usually rock solid. The old adage is defense wins championships, and in that spirit, the Maple Leafs are in the process of revamping their backend. Frederik Andersen is the newest man between the pipes, and will be the unquestioned number one netminder heading into the regular season.

The Maple Leafs also started to improve their blueline, bringing in talented Russian speedster Nikita Zaitsev. All signs point to a successful transition for the defenseman, so what are the expectations for one of the newest Maple Leafs?

Person of Interest: Nikita Zaitsev

The Maple Leafs and Zaitsev were long rumoured to be working on a deal to bring the blueliner over to North American soil. It was finally made official and Zaitsev will be in Toronto for training camp. Leaf fans will get a chance to see their newest addition beforehand however. Zaitsev will be representing Russia in the World Cup of Hockey.

The Maple Leafs locked up Zaitsev to a one-year deal. His strengths include his skating, which is phenomenal, his positioning and his offensive capabilities. He has his age going in his favour as well. He’s only 24-years old and has already put up significant time in the KHL, staying and excelling in the league for seven seasons.

He put up fantastic numbers his last couple years, including 58 points in 103 games the last two seasons. That also goes along with him being named an All-Star. While that is all fantastic for Leaf fans, they should also temper their expectations. They shouldn’t expect a superstar right out of the gate, and it may take Zaitsev a little bit of time to find his footing in the NHL.

There is a lot of upside to the Leafs bringing a player of this calibre into the system. Many teams were courting him in hopes of securing his services for the coming season.

Pundits point to him being undrafted as a reason to be concerned. A response to that is a simple one. Some of the most talented players in the NHL today were undrafted and signed with a team later in their career. Tyler Johnson and Artemi Panarin, the latter of whom won the Calder trophy and scored 30 goals and 77 points, are excellent examples.

Both of those players are forwards, whereas Zaitsev is a defenseman, but the point stands. Just because a player wasn’t drafted, doesn’t mean that he won’t have success at the NHL level. The Maple Leafs are exploring all avenues at their disposal. If Zaitsev turns out to be a bust, they only have him on the books for a year.

If he turns heads and wows everyone, I’m sure they will try their best to lock him up for the next few years. If it’s any consolation, former NHLer Ryan Whitney, who played against Zaitsev during his time in Russia, was immediately impressed with the poise and skill of the young defenseman.

My colleague, Alessandro Seren Rosso, did a fantastic breakdown on the KHL career of Zaitsev. If you wish to dive more into Toronto’s newest acquisition, you can click the link right here.

It’s going to be an interesting year in Toronto. The Maple Leafs may have a gem on their hands with the young blueliner. Only time with tell if Zaitsev is a stud or a dud.