Remember back in June, when it looked like the Toronto Maple Leafs had signed a hot-shot Russian defenceman out of the KHL? Well, Nikita Zaitsev is back, and not in pog form. While things didn’t work out at the time, Elliotte Friedman reports that the entire league is pretty sure he’ll sign with the blue and white at the end of the season. [UPDATE: We’ve received additional information of our own].
26. The other strange one was how little Russia used Nikita Zaitsev, the free-agent-defenceman-to-be. “We were hoping to see more of him,” the above scout mentioned. Another noted the Russians used Boston pick Maxim Chudinov more than Zaitsev. Chudinov’s been loyal to the KHL and Zaitsev is leaving, which could be a big factor. By the way, everyone’s convinced he’s is going to Toronto. If someone wants to take the field, there’s money to be won.
Zaitsev was initially speculated to sign with the Leafs in the beginning of the summer, but still had a year remaining on his contract with CSKA Moscow. Unlike his teammate Alexander Radulov, Zaitsev decided that honouring the last year of his contract before doing an NHL/KHL transition was a good idea; especially since it allowed for him to gain some more attention from other teams.
The Leafs aren’t the first NHL team to pursue him. The Philadephia Flyers have continuously approached Zaitsev since his draft year, and the New York Rangers invited him to their prospect development camp in 2012. The Buffalo Sabres had previous interest, and the Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks, and Calgary Flames are presently in the mix.
Zaitsev would be a very interesting get for the Leafs. Through 22 games this year, the 24-year-old defenceman has four goals and nine assists. This ties him for 13th in scoring among KHL defencemen. That’s already pretty good, but what makes it better is that he’s played fewer games than most of the players ahead of him and has lower ice time. His 1.69 points per 60 minutes is ranked 7th amongst the top 14, which is pretty decent for a guy who is the youngest of the bunch, in most cases by several years.
On CSKA Moscow, Zaitsev is used as a top pairing defenseman, averaging a team-leading 21 minutes per game. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s significant in a league that uses four defensive pairings. Zaitsev has been praised by scouts for his shot, but he hasn’t used it all that much this year; likely as a byproduct of spending so much of his ice time with the likes of Alexander Radulov and “wasn’t fit for the NHL” superstar Geoff Platt, who have combined for 7.4 shots per game. Last year, he scored 12 goals in 57 games. Zaitsev also plays on CSKA’s powerplay. Presently, he is CSKA’s alternate captain, though he’s worn the C in spurts as well.
Last year, he was named to the KHL’s first all-star team, represented CSKA in the KHL All-Star Game, and won defenceman of the week twice in the span of two months.
Outside of the KHL, he’s represented the Russian National Team on multiple occasions. He won a silver medal in 2009’s Under-18 World Championship, played on both the 2010 and gold medal winning 2011 World Junior rosters, played three games in the 2013 World Championships, and was named to the roster of the gold medal winning 2014 World Championship team (but didn’t play).
Zaitsev is seen as a late bloomer, and a lot of that is a result of his constant attempts to better his play. As a younger, emerging athlete, he attended hockey schools that developed the likes of Alexei Morozov and Alexander Frolov. In his summers, he comes across the Atlantic and trains with fitness guru and former Leaf Gary Roberts.
Toronto appears to be a good fit for him if he decides to stick to his original plan. Aside from pulling off the Blue Jays cap we see in the header spectacularly well, the Leafs should still be transitioning through their crossroads next season. Roman Polak almost assuredly going to be gone, and I wouldn’t be shocked if a few other pieces on the point are moved as well. It’s not unrealistic to think that he can make next year’s roster and stick to it, seeing as he’s already a core piece on arguably the highest profile team in the second best league in the world.
If nothing else, he can make mad endorsement money with commercials like this. Hey, Bell/Rogers, maybe this can be your hidden signing bonus?
If you’d like to scout this definitely-maybe-future Leafs prospect, CSKA’s next game is on Saturday at 11:30 AM Toronto Time.
UPDATE (11:00 PM EST)
Since we’ve posted this article, I’ve had the chance to chat with a couple of people surrounding Zatisev’s situation. The consensus is that Zatisev’s mind is made up and that it has been made up since June. Zaitsev is personally committed to signing with the Leafs, and while his agent is allowing for other teams to make their approaches, it’s more for the sake of not leaving stones unturned and having a contingency plan if anything falls through. As it stands, he was very impressed by what he’s seen in Toronto and has bought in.
KHL contracts expire on April 30th, so the earliest we could see an official update on this would likely be in May. This leaves about six months of speculation, of course, though unless anything changes, it appears that such speculation will be theatre.