The Toronto Maple Leafs announced the long awaited signing of Nikita Zaitsev to a one-year entry-level contract on Monday, May 2nd.
The Leafs had long been rumoured to have an agreement in place with Zaitsev since the beginning of the 2015-16 season, and with the signing, that has become a fact.
Zaitsev, 24, has spent the past seven seasons in the KHL, most recently with CSKA Moscow. He scored eight goals and 26 points in 46 regular season games, then added four goals and 13 points in 20 playoff games, tied for most among defencemen. Zaitsev is a two-time KHL All-Star, and is currently playing with Russia at the 2016 IIHF World Championships.
With the Leafs still in the beginning stages of a rebuild, Zaitsev has an opportunity to come into Toronto and take on a top-four role. With Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner currently the only defencemen signed long-term, Zaitsev could see over 20 minutes of action a night in 2016-17.
How Did Zaitsev Perform in the KHL?
Since being drafted 4th overall in the 2009 KHL Draft, Zaitsev has slowly but surely become a complete defenceman, and one of the best in the league. He was drafted by Sibir Novosibirsk, spending four seasons there. Of course, starting out as an 18-year-old meant limited playing time and a need for vast improvements. After playing 132 games in his first three years, totalling just one goal and seven points, Zaitsev seemed to find his stride in 2012-13.
As a 21-year-old, Zaitsev found his groove. He exploded for seven goals and 18 points, nearly tripling his point total from the previous three seasons combined. The following year, 2013-14, Zaitsev moved on to CSKA Moscow where he was given top minutes.
Over his three seasons with CSKA Moscow, Zaitsev developed into one of the top defenders in the league. He set a career high in both goals and points in 2014-15 with 12 and 32, respectively. He was also selected to participate in the KHL All Star Game in each of the past two years.
What Does Zaitsev’s Future Look Like?
The 6’2 Russian is a smart two-way defender who transitions the puck well. He has good vision of the ice which he uses to make a responsible first pass on the breakout. He skates well enough that he can rush the puck through the neutral zone at the right time as well. He has a hard shot from the blue line, but can also read when to throw a wrister on net to generate deflections or rebounds.
Defensively, Zaitsev is calm and poised using both his body and stick to break up potential plays. He can clear bodies from the crease well and is able to win a large portion of puck battles. He could benefit from becoming a little bit stronger and developing a smoother stride.
Interested to see how he plays in NHL. He was just as impressive to me in KHL as Panarin was when I was in Russia https://t.co/mD5Mzlm4Ry
— Ryan Whitney (@ryanwhitney6) May 2, 2016
For 2016-17, Zaitsev will need to earn a spot in the lineup just like everyone else, nothing will be given to him. However, heading into training camp he likely has a spot in the top-four, with his KHL performance giving him an early advantage.
If Zaitsev can quickly transition into the NHL game, he should have a long future during, and after, the Leafs’ rebuild.
Expectations For Zaitsev’s Career in Toronto
Of course, they will be a transition period for the 24-year-old as he comes to live on a new continent for the first time. Not only does he have to quickly find the groove of NHL hockey, but he needs to adjust to living in Toronto and being with new teammates, many of whom only speak English.
If Zaitsev can successfully adapt to the North American lifestyle, then the hockey should come easy to him. He is an extremely talented player who could be a top-four defenceman for the Leafs for many years to come.
Although Zaitsev is currently signed to just a one-year contract, he will have plenty of incentive to stay long-term, with the Leafs destined to be one of the most exciting teams in the league within the next couple of years.
A realistic expectation for Zaitsev in his prime would be as a puck-moving defenceman who plays around 20 minutes a night and chips in offensively with 35-40 points a year.