Toronto Maple Leafs 2016-17 Season Review: Nikita Zaitsev

Oct 25, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (22) turns away from Tampa Bay Lightning forward Cedric Paquette (13) in the third period at Air Canada Centre. Tampa Bay won 7-3. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 25, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (22) turns away from Tampa Bay Lightning forward Cedric Paquette (13) in the third period at Air Canada Centre. Tampa Bay won 7-3. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports /

The Toronto Maple Leafs found a hidden gem when they signed Nikita Zaitsev last offseason, as the Russian provided stability on the blue line.

Over the next few weeks we will be looking back at the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ 2016-17 season and reviewing how each player performed this year. Our season in review will start with the defence, move to the goalies and finish with the forwards. Next up in our season review is defenceman Nikita Zaitsev.

Going into this season, it was tough to project the type of impact that Zaitsev was going to have on the Leafs blue line. He missed part of Leafs training camp playing for Russia at the World Cup of Hockey but once he got up to speed, the team knew they had something in the 25-year old.

While Zaitsev had a strong reputation from his time in the KHL, there were questions as to how he would adjust to playing Babcock’s system and the smaller ice surface. He certainly gained the trust of his head coach with his defensive play and was an asset as a right-handed shot which is not easy to find.

This is what general manager Lou Lamoriello had to say about Zaitsev after his rookie season and signing him to a seven-year extension, which would pay him $4.5 million per season:

"“We felt that, after having him here a year, and certainly watching him over the last couple years, everything we thought about him was what we saw – the way he plays, the style he plays, the way he takes care of himself,” Lamoriello told reporters. “He’s in the elite category as far as how he can be used and how he’s trusted, and he can really play in all situations if necessary.”"

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So how did the Leafs come to acquire Zaitsev? Well Leafs head coach Mike Babcock talked about that with TSN analyst Darren Dreger during his recent interview segment “Dreger Café”. He said director of player evaluation Jim Paliafito, the former OHL GM who was hired in 2015, played a big part in that.

When he joined the Leafs Paliafito had an excellent reputation as a talent evaluator drafting players like Brandon Saad, Vincent Trocheck, and Jamie Oleksiak. It appears that he laid down the groundwork to bring Zaitsev into the fold which shows how strong the Leafs front office is in talent evaluation.

This season the 25-year old played 22:01 on average which showed the amount of trust Babcock had in the rookie. He certainly had his critics like Don Cherry, who said that Zaitsev could not play defence and was not worth the seven-year extension he got. Cherry pointed out his plus-minus numbers, which many know it is not a great argument when it comes to evaluating the impact of a defenceman which is where analytics come in.

Season Statistics:

3 things to know about Zaitsev’s 2016-17 season

  1. Outside of the basic statistical numbers Zaitsev’s impact defensively can be seen in other data like the hero charts that Own the Puck use to analyze the type of impact a player has. Zaitsev’s time on ice percentage, assists per hour, points per hour, shots generated all rank on the high end. While his corsi and fenwick numbers fall just under 50 percent, it is not surprising considering 55.2 percent of his starts were in the defensive zone.
  2. Zaitsev’s strength is his ability to move the puck efficiently and that earned him time on the power play. His 36 points in 82 games was third among rookie defencemen this season.
  3. He was injured in the final game of the season which forced him to miss the first two games of the series against the Washington Capitals. It was confirmed that he did sustain a concussion which would explain his struggle to get back to speed when he returned. He will benefit from getting time off as he decided not to play in the IIHF World Championship.

2017-18 Season outlook

After signing a long-term extension there will be more pressure on him to continue to play at a high level. If he is going to continue to play on the power play then he could stand to shoot more as he has a strong shot from the point. If he can develop his slap shot from the point it would add another dimension to his offensive game.

He is a strong skater but could stand to add more muscle which will help him handle the physical play more although that was not a big issue for him this season. He spoke about it during his locker room clear out that the physicality in the NHL took some adjusting too.

Next: Leafs 2016-17 Season Review- Morgan Rielly

The Leafs will be adding more defencemen to the fold next season which means that the competition will get tougher for Zaitsev. However, as a right-handed shot he should have no problem securing a spot in the top four. The question is where there is more that he can offer? It will be interesting to see how he comes back in his sophomore season but given his contract situation and how important he was in a shutdown role, Zaitsev should be the least of the Leafs’ worries this offseason.