Toronto Maple Leafs: examining Nikita Zaitsev’s contract extension

Mar 7, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev (22) clears the puck against Detroit Red Wings in the third period at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 7, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev (22) clears the puck against Detroit Red Wings in the third period at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports /

The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t waste any time by signing Nikita Zaitsev to a seven-year contract extension this past Tuesday. Will the Leafs regret signing him or was it a good choice?

The recent signing of defencemen Nikita Zaitsev has had its praise and criticism as some see it as a smart decision and others see it as a poor one. The 25-year-old reportedly declined offers from the KHL to sign an extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs, that decision shows his level of dedication to the Leafs. Let’s weigh out the pros and cons of Zaitsev’s contract looking at what he has accomplished, and what his play has shown to see if it was the right choice.

The Pros

One of Zaitsev’s strongest qualities is how hard he works defensively, which has been applauded by head coach Mike Babcock and general manager Lou Lamoriello. In a Sportsnet article, Dan Milstein — Zaitsev’s agent — had this to say about his clients work ethic.

"“Lou, Brendan [Shanahan] and Mike Babcock have been extremely impressive in their efforts in Toronto over the last two seasons, turning the franchise in the right direction,” Milstein added. “Under Lou and Mike there is nothing given. Everything in Toronto is earned, and certainly Nikita Zaitsev, like I said, he’s the first to come in, he’s the last one off the ice, the last one out of the locker room. He’s a worker and he has earned a spot not only on the team but also he has earned a long-term contract.”"

In his rookie season, Zaitsev scored four goals and 36 points in 82 games this season. One of his other great assets as a player is his skating ability, which should get better working with the team’s skating coach Barb Underhill.

While he is deployed as a defensive presence on the power play, he was able to contribute offensively with a goal and 11 assists. He played on-average 22 minutes a night this past season, mostly against the other team’s best forwards, which shows Babcock’s trusts the Russian’s shutdown ability.

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Furthermore, Zaitsev’s intangibles are what make him a prime player for the Leafs. He brings tenacity and combat to the game, he works diligently during practice, he’s focused in the gym, and, despite not being born in North America, he has adapted well to this culture.

He was able to come right into the NHL and get used to the smaller ice surface and formed a pretty good defensive pairing with teammate Jake Gardiner. It also helps that he is a right-handed defenceman which is a valuable commodity for the Maple Leafs.

The Cons

Many believe that the Leafs took a risk with giving Zaitsev a seven-year contract and that the cap hit was a bit high given his limited time in the NHL. But besides this, in terms of Zaitsev’s defensive role on the team, there are areas where the Russian prospect can improve on which was brought up in a recent piece by The Leafs Nation.

A crucial aspect of a defenceman is that he has to stop the opposing team from crossing the blue line with the puck. There are two key things to look at: carry in percentage and break up percentage.

Carry in percentage looks at how frequently the puck was strongly entered into the zone when a defenceman is directed at. Break up percentage is how frequently the defender disrupts the play at the blue line.

Looking at Zaitsev’s numbers, to put it nicely, they are not good. In comparison to other players on the team Zaitsev struggled in this area and enabled the puck to advance Toronto’s defensive area at a high rate.

Another area that Zaitsev could improve on is the number of times he ices the puck, which he did at a high rate. While some defenceman use it as a way to stop the opposing team’s momentum and catch a breather, it also means that the defender is not able to contain the play and just throws it down the ice. Zaitsev iced the puck the most out of all Leafs defencemen where in the games tracked, he iced the puck 22 times.

At the end of the day, it is difficult to say whether the price the Leafs paid for him was the right one. In Zaitsev’s defence, he has only played in the NHL for one season and has time to improve on his game.

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With Babcock’s coaching and structure his style of play will translate better over the years. Zaitsev has good and bad qualities, just like all players do. But the Leafs signed him with the intention that the pros that they like about him will outweigh the cons that others may not like.