Last Train to Zaitsev: Russian defenceman could sign with Leafs as soon as this evening

Jeff Veillette
April 30 2016 10:53AM

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Today is the day. After months of intense speculation and over a year of negotiation-like chatter, Russian defenceman Nikita Zaitsev will end his contract with CSKA Moscow this evening and become free to negotiate with teams around the world without being chained down to a transfer agreement. With that said, there won't be much negotiation.

As we were the first to fully commit to back in November, Zaitsev will be a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs next season. There's been no pen put to paper just yet, but in the eyes of the player, this decision has been made for a very long time.

The Leafs were interested in signing the Moscow native back in June of 2015, but he still had a year remaining on his contract at the time. While some would treat this as a miss for Leafs management, but it turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise.

After all, they had done all the convincing that they needed to do. It was made clear that the Leafs were a young, rebuilding team that would climb the league ladder shortly after his arrival. It was a city that was familiar to him; minus having the big city vibe, he's spent his last few summers training with Gary Roberts and has a ton of friends in town. Most importantly, there was a feeling of being wanted being projected towards him, something that he didn't get at a draft-eligible age.

His agent still chatted with teams from time to time and didn't close the door on CSKA, but that was all just in case the Leafs backed out. After all, Zaitsev had come off of a career year during their first talks, and if he was going to get the deal a year later, he'd have to prove it wasn't a one off.

The good news? He did just that.

Without a shred of exaggeration, Zaitsev is the best combination of talent and age of any defenceman the KHL. Given that the league is the consensus number two in the world and that many of its players could easily drop into the NHL, that's particularly impressive. 

The eyes will tell you instantaneously that the youngster is an NHL-ready player. At 6'2 and a little under 200 pounds, he's got a frame that can hold up to the rigors of the big leagues. He's a crafty skater who has a small ice-capable first step, he can make outlet passes with ease, and has a howitzer from the point. The Leafs are surely salivating at the fact that he is a right-handed shot; something that the defensive group is short on right now.

The numbers back up the qualitative thoughts, though. In a league where teams dress eight defencemen, Zaitsev averaged over 20 minutes per game, the highest on CSKA Moscow and something that only 54 others did over a 20+ game stretch. In this group, only five were under 25; Zaitsev was one of them.

Of those five, Zaitsev is by far the most capable offensively. In 46 games, he put up 8 goals and 18 assists, good for 26 points and an average of 1.61 points per 60 minutes of ice time (all situations). That's over double the second-best player in his age bracket, and good for 5th in the league. His shot rate (6.4 per 60) is in the top fifteen among these high-minute defencemen, and his hit and blocked shot rates show just enough frequency to show that he's not shy to sacrifice, but not enough to believe that he's chasing the puck around. 

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Zaitsev's growth as a top-end, young defenceman in a veteran-dominated league has been a sight to behold. Starting off on a smaller club in HC Sibir Novosibirsk gave him a chance to ease himself into the spotlight, and since joining CSKA Moscow, he's become the team most relied upon defenceman, leading the group in ice time, involving himself in special teams, and emerging as a team leader; he wore the A behind controversial superstar and team captain Alexander Radulov, and has even filled in as the C-holder in times where Radulov has been out of the lineup. Even though the team has known all season that he's moving on, they've relied on him to anchor the team's blue line.

This spring, he did that all the way until Game 7 of the Gagarin Cup Finals. Of all 20+ minute defencemen to play ten games during this postseason, Zaitsev was the most productive (1.73 points per 60 minutes, 13 points in 20 games), played the most shifts per game (33), had the fourth highest shot rate of the 15-player group, and came through in moments of need. He was easily CSKA's best player in the final round, but even after his goal streak in games 1-3 tapered off, the fatigue of the rest of the team showed and they lost the season-deciding game to Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Make no mistake, though; he was CSKA's MVP in the postseason and just behind Radulov as their most important player throughout the year.

Ultimately, the Leafs are getting a player who's NHL production and minutes played comparables in the past two years (using all situations points/60 adjusted with NHLe) include Aaron Ekblad, Brent Seabrook, Trevor Daley, Ryan Ellis, Niklas Kronwall, Anton Stralman, Cody Franson, Alex Pietrangelo, and Drew Doughty. That's some pretty impressive company to be keeping; whether he has the possession game to match or the ability to translate is going to be the major question.

But there's not a ton of risk in this situation. Zaitsev will be signing a 1-year entry level deal that will become RFA-protected if the Leafs wish at the end of the year, meaning he can be cut loose if need be, or held onto without concern of competition if he succeeds. In effect, the Leafs are getting a free weighted coin toss on a player who is highly likely to immediately jump into second or even first pairing minutes as a 24-year-old rookie. That's an incredibly enticing proposition for a team looking for ways to find undervalued talent.

If the two sides are in a rush to get this deal done, you could see Zaitsev sign his contract as early as 5:00 PM today, or midnight of May 1st at the KHL offices in Moscow. The fact that he's playing exhibition games in preparation for the World Championships will likely mean this takes a few days or even weeks to become official, but the possibility is there. If nothing else, securing Zaitsev and Auston Matthews on the same night would be a cornerstone moment in the rebuild process.

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Managing Editor of Hockey Content at the Nation Network. Just here so I'll get the opposite of fined. If you'd like to collaborate or simply have a question, email me at jeff@veillette.me
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#1 Mitch92
April 30 2016, 11:11AM
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The Leafs signing Zaitsev is the worst kept secret in the NHL. Every other team's GMs have already basically resigned themselves to the notion that Zaitsev to Toronto is a done deal. Lets just hope he doesn't bring Alex Radulov with him?

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#3 Mitch92
April 30 2016, 12:11PM
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Jeff Veillette wrote:

Yeah, who would want a free superstar forward that's starting to come around maturity-wise and can be watched over by Lou and Babs?

Well if you think Radulov would require babysitting by Lou and Babs then his maturity is still in question and as he will be thirty before next season I would rather that be some other team's concern. We have enough to worry about.

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#4 jay
April 30 2016, 12:27PM
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we need something to be happy about after edmonton wins the lottery again.

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#5 ag
April 30 2016, 12:30PM
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@Jeff Veillette

hes a dman.

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#6 Mitch92
April 30 2016, 12:33PM
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ag wrote:

hes a dman.

I think Jeff was referring to my comment on Radulov.

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#7 Gary Empey
April 30 2016, 03:39PM
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Any time one can acquire a top four defenceman without using a high draft pick or top six forward has to be a great move.

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#8 Mitch92
April 30 2016, 03:43PM
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Gary Empey wrote:

Any time one can acquire a top four defenceman without using a high draft pick or top six forward has to be a great move.

Signing Zaitsev as a free wallet is a definite boon to the Leaf organization. If he pans out to become a regular in our top four all the better.

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#9 Ajwl27
April 30 2016, 06:15PM
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The Toronto maple leafs have won the Draft!!!!

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#10 Joe Robb for Burlington
April 30 2016, 11:28PM
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This is embarrassing, why can't they get a good ol' Canadian kid from Kingston, Ontario?!

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#11 Harte of a Lion
April 30 2016, 11:34PM
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The #1 pick and Zaitzev is like winning 2 lotteries on the same day!!!

When Zaitsev makes it official, it will be another great day for Leaf Nation

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#12 jay
April 30 2016, 11:41PM
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@jay

NEVERMIND HAHAHAHAHA YES!!!!!!!!!!!

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#13 Mitch92
May 01 2016, 10:36AM
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Any word on the Zaitsev signing yet? With each move our rebuild brings us closer to contention. Another top right side defender and a number one goalie and teams are going to figure out quickly that the Leafs need to be taken very seriously.

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#14 Jeremy Campbell
May 03 2016, 07:58AM
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The more I learn about Zaitsev the more I'm intrigued with him. It's great he knows Toronto, has friends in the city, and even works out with Roberts in the Summer. To get Matthews and now Zaitsev in the same week is pretty huge! The rebuild is looking good! I wonder if Stamkos and Zaitsev are buddies...?

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