The Toronto Maple Leafs recently announced that they signed Russian defenseman Nikita Zaitsev to an ELC valid through the 2016-17 season. His NHL signing was heavily rumored in recent months, while NHL teams have been interested in Zaitsev since his draft year, where he was surprisingly overlooked, probably due to lack of exposure. Earlier it was looking like that the Flyers were interested in signing him. CSKA Moscow’s GM, the former Detroit Red Wings legend Sergei Fedorov, recently told the Russian media that they knew about Zaitsev’s move at the start of the season.
Nikita Zaitsev was born in Moscow, Russia, on October 29th, 1991, where his father Igor is a business owner and his mother is a homemaker. Nikita also has a little brother, who is nine years old and is already playing hockey.
Zaitsev started playing hockey for the Krylia Sovetov organization, the same team that produced players like Sergei Nemchinov, Alexei Morozov, Alexander Korolyuk, and, more recently, Andrey Pedan and former Blackhawks prospect Igor Makarov. With Krylia Sovetov he played his first pro games in the 2008-09 season in the Russian second tier league. In 2009, the team folded and he was eligible for the first ever KHL draft, where he was picked fourth overall by Sibir Novosibirsk.
In 2009, thus, Zaitsev moved to Novosibirsk, where he started playing for Sibir in the KHL right away, despite his young age. In Novosibirsk, Zaitsev had four very successful seasons where he climbed up the rankings to the senior national team. In the meantime, he represented Russia at the U18 and U20 World Junior Championships, winning a silver medal at the U18 level and a gold medal in 2010 in Buffalo, when Team Russia was led by Vladimir Tarasenko, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Artemi Panarin. In his final year with Sibir he started being a regular for Team Russia on the international stage, taking part to the 2013 IIHF WC in Sweden and Finland. In total, he played 181 regular season games with Sibir, scoring eight goals and 25 points.
In 2013, Zaitsev had reportedly caught the Flyers’ interest, but he decided to go back to the Russian capital city and signed with CSKA Moscow. Being an RFA, he rejected a three-year offer from the Novosibirsk franchise and agreed to the allegedly more lucrative offer from CSKA, who gave Sibir monetary compensation, defenseman Igor Ozhiganov, and former Caps prospect Dmitry Kugryshev. Both players were eventually traded back to CSKA a couple of years later.
In CSKA Zaitsev was a leader, as he was with Sibir. And most importantly, he gained more significant playoff experience. In his first year with CSKA he skated in only four postseason games, but in the last two seasons CSKA went a long way both times, losing 4-3 to the eventual champions of SKA St. Petersburg in the Western Conference Semifinals, then losing once again 4-3 to Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Gagarin Cup Finals. Zaitsev was excellent on both occasions, especially this year, as he scored a total of 21 points in 36 playoff games in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 campaigns.
In the regular season, Zaitsev scored 16 goals and 48 points in 103 games with the Red Army. He was also selected to play in the KHL All-Star Game in the latest two seasons. He is expected to skate in his second IIHF WC starting from May 6th, this time on home soil.
Zaitsev will bring to Toronto excellent skating, a good shot from the point and an above-average understanding of the game. He will have to work on the offseason in bulking up and will also have to adapt to the more physically-demanding NHL game. The Leafs, on their part, will hope that he will be their next Artemi Panarin, rather than another Evgeny Medvedev. Considering his age, his production, and his intangibles, the odds are on their side.