Toronto Maple Leafs players that need to step up with Matthews injured

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 10: Auston Matthews
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 10: Auston Matthews /
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TORONTO, ON – OCTOBER 7: Nikita Zaitsev /

Nikita Zaitsev

It has not been a kind sophomore season for the Russian defenceman and since returning from his foot injury, Zaitsev has not been the same player. How bad has it gone for him? Since he came back in late January he is the third-worst possession defenceman on the team at 5-on-5.

It has come to the point where Babcock should consider moving him to play with rookie Travis Dermott and putting Connor Carrick with Jake Gardiner. As Pension Plan Puppets wrote back in January, there is data that points to both Gardiner and Zaitsev being more effective away from each other than being paired together.

Unfortunately Carrick has enough of a hard time getting into the lineup so expecting Babcock to make that switch would be slim to none. That is not the only issue Zaitsev seems to be dealing with right now.

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After the loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Zaitsev told Jonas Siegel of The Athletic that he struggled to box players out during the game. That edge he played with last season has been none existent at times, and it seems like he is a step behind.

Now those struggles have been hidden by the offensive outburst from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the last month. While he will not help them offensively during Matthews’ absence, the team could benefit from him turning his game around.

Part of it could be lingering effects of the foot injury or the amount of time Babcock plays him at even strength (second behind Gardiner) and on the penalty kill (second behind Ron Hainsey).

This is why many are wondering if the Leafs are planning to add a defenceman at the deadline to take some of the workload off of Zaitsev and Hainsey but until that happens, Zaitsev will have to figure it out.