Toronto Maple Leafs: Nikita Zaitsev should bounce back next season

Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) /

Last season saw Nikita Zaitsev‘s production drop dramatically, but things could be vastly different next campaign for the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman.

After a strong rookie season, it is safe to say the sophomore slump wasn’t too kind to Nikita Zaitsev and that impacted the Toronto Maple Leafs defence this past season.

The big Russian defenceman arrived in Toronto in 2016 with some decent offensive numbers in the KHL, averaging 0.3 points per game in 317 regular season appearances.

His first year in the NHL saw him look even more impressive, jumping up to 0.44 points per game – good for 36 points (four goals and 32 assists) in a full 82-game season.

Zaitsev did enough to earn a long-term contract from the Leafs, with a cap hit of $4.5 million per season.

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The second year in Toronto saw the 6 foot 2, 194 pounds right-hander struggle on the offensive side of the ice – registering just 13 points (five goals and eight assists) in 60 games. He also struggled in his own zone, seeing his CF% drop from 49.4 to 47.5 percent while his FF% went from 49.7 to 45.7 percent.

Zaitsev’s second year was also hampered by injury, which saw him miss 22 games of the regular season and it left a noticeable impact on his performance. His illness was so bad that it caused him to lose weight and unable to skate for five days.

After spending most of his time with Morgan Rielly during his rookie campaign, the Russian was dropped to the second pairing, alongside Jake Gardiner. He still managed to average 22 minutes of ice time, as the Leafs reached back-to-back playoffs for the first time since the early 2000s.

Heading into next season, however, Zaitsev should be able to step up and try to recreate his production from the 2016-17 season.

The Leafs added John Tavares in free agency this summer and could have one of the top offences in the league next season, sporting a 1-2-3 punch through the middle that very few teams can match.

If Zaitsev is able to show that his struggles are behind him, he could find himself bumped back up to the first pairing alongside Rielly.

Ron Hainsey, who replaced Zaitsev on that first pairing, looked noticeably fatigued as the season wore on, with the 37-year-old’s body not able to play through a full 82-game season like he used to.

Zaitsev moving up to the first pairing could give the Leafs the opportunity to rest Hainsey more often and see him remain fresher in the second half of the regular season and into the playoffs.

The bigger responsibility, along with the players he will line up with regularly should see Zaitsev flourish once again, reaching the level he has shown he is capable of in the NHL.

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What do you think Leafs Nation? Will Zaitsev regain his form? Will the addition of Tavares help him claim his top pairing spot once again and increase his offensive production? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!