TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #4 Nikita Zaitsev


The Leafs have done a world-class job at replenishing their prospect pool with world-class players, which typically means that the proverbial classroom is going to look a little more like High School than Post-Grad. So, with that considered, it’s a bit of a surprise to see a 25-year-old rookie acquired four months ago at the 4th spot of our rankings.

But Nikita Zaitsev isn’t your average prospect. He went unnoticed for much of his youth, hidden behind a slow development curve and other competing talent in a far away land. But he’s finally ready to create excitement, and all signs point to him being able to do so from Day 1.

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The Votes

Jeff Ryan H. Shawn Ryan F. Adam Dom Jess Katy Readers
4 5 4 6 8 7 4 5 4

This is Zaitsev’s first year in the Leafs organization.

Player Bio

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Position Hometown Height Weight Hand 2015 Team Acquired
D Moscow, RUS 6’2 196 Right CSKA Moscow Free Agent (2016)

The Stats

 2008-09 17  MHC Krylya  Russia2 8 0 0 0 N/A 0 -4
  17  MHK Krylia Sovetov-2  Russia4 23 6 12 18 N/A 24 N/A
  17  Russia U18  WJC-18 7 1 4 5 N/A 14 7
 2009-10 18  Sibir Novosibirsk  KHL 40 0 1 1 1.64 6 -10
  18  Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk  MHL 4 0 1 1 3.69 2 2
  18  Russia U20  WJC-20 6 0 0 0 0 4 1
 2010-11 19  Sibir Novosibirsk  KHL 39 0 2 2 3.36 12 5
  19  Zauralie Kurgan  VHL 0 0 0 0 N/A 0 0
  19  Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk  MHL 4 1 2 3 11.07 0 1
  19  Russia U20  WJC-20 6 0 0 0 0 0 -2
 2011-12 20  Sibir Novosibirsk  KHL 53 1 3 4 4.95 28 4
  20  Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk  MHL 4 4 0 4 14.76 0 3
 2012-13 21  Sibir Novosibirsk  KHL 49 7 11 18 24.09 41 -7
  21  Russia  EHT 2 0 0 0 N/A 0 1
  21  Russia  WC 3 1 0 1 N/A 0 1
  21  Russia (all)  International 5 1 0 1 N/A 0 2
 2013-14 22  CSKA Moskva  KHL 33 4 8 12 23.85 18 1
  22  Russia  EHT 6 0 0 0 N/A 2 -1
  22  Russia (all)  International 11 0 0 0 N/A 2 N/A
 2014-15 23  CSKA Moskva  KHL 57 12 20 32 36.83 31 27
  23  Russia  EHT 3 0 0 0 N/A 0 0
  23  Russia (all)  International 3 0 0 0 N/A 0 N/A
 2015-16 24  CSKA Moskva   KHL 46 8 18 26 35.53 20 21
  24  Russia  EHT 4 0 0 0 N/A 2 -1
  24  Russia  WC 10 1 3 4 N/A 2 12

I’m usually of the belief that there’s no such thing as a late bloomer, rather just players that aren’t given opportunities to succeed. Zaitsev might be an exception to the rule; he’s improved to both the eyes and the stat sheet on a year-by-year basis at just about every level he’s played in.

Last year, Zaitsev put up 1.61 all-situations points per 60 minutes from the point, good for 5th among KHL defencemen and over twice the next-best rate for an Under-25 defenceman. Adjusted, you find a solid scoring rate for a 2nd-paring defenceman in the NHL and a still passable one for a top pairing player. 

In the playoffs, he stepped it up even further, scoring 13 points in 20 games (1.71 points/60), taking the most shifts per game in the league, and pushed his team all the way to Game 7 of the Gagarin Cup Finals.

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Over the past two seasons, his league and ice time-adjusted comparables in the NHL have been Aaron Ekblad, Brent Seabrook, Trevor Daley, Ryan Ellis, Niklas Kronwall, Anton Stralman, Cody Franson, Alex Pietrangelo, and Drew Doughty. That’s… quite impressive. 

Projection Stats

11 (17/18) 2 (17/18) 18.2% (17/18) 0.26 (18/18) 21.57 (18/18) 4.78 (17/18)

  • pGPSn: The number of matches between the subject and the player-seasons (one season by a single player, i.e, John Tavares 2008 OHL) in the historical sample.
  • pGPSs: The number of statistical matches that became NHL regulars. This is determined by playing 200 NHL games.
  • pGPS%: Simply s divided by n, this is the percentage of statistical matches that successfully became NHL players.
  • pGPS PPG: The NHL points per game of successful matches.
  • pGPS P82: The same as pGPS PPG, but stretched over 82 games.
  • pGPSr: A bit of a hybrid number, this pGPS Rating combines the percentage and points per game to produce a number that includes both likelihood of success and potential upside.

Based on the success of his historical comparables, Zaitsev is projected to become a top-four defenceman. 

To learn more about the Prospect Graduation Probabilities System, check out this post.

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The Eye Test

KHL broadcaster Andrey Osadchenko had this to say about him:

Zaitsev has a good two-way game. While he doesn’t go for risky plays in the defensive end, he’s known to get creative in the neutral zone and in the offensive zone. He has a good point shot and is surprisingly good on his feet given his weight. He reminds me somewhat of Jake Gardiner style-wise. The fact both lack facial expression also helps.

The best part about the comparison to Jake Gardiner, outside of it being totally true, is the fact that it’s going to probably either send your hype train through the roof or off of a cliff. 

As Seen on TV

The Buildup

It seems like Zaitsev was always destined to end up here. Both the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers invited him to development camps over the years, and each time he somehow fell short of their expectation.

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He never felt his summers were wasted in North America, though. The youngster was going to be here anyway, as he always made a point to train with Gary Roberts in a city he had grown to appreciate more and more with every time he visited.

So, needless to say, when the Leafs came calling, he was quick to listen. In fact, he was ready to put his pen to paper last season, but there was simply no way to get out of his contract with CKSA. Of course, there are worse things in the world than chasing a trophy in your home country and playing with (now Montreal Canadiens winger) Alexander Radulov, so we all sat and waited to see how the year played out.

While some made the situation sound like a bidding war, the reality was that his mind was made up. Calls from other teams were entertained, but only as fallbacks if the Leafs suddenly lost interest. But, with another monster year under his belt, there was no way that they were saying no. Just hours after becoming a free agent on May 1st, the two sides made things official.

Next Season

Some players are on this list for what they can become. Nikita Zaitsev is on this list because he’s still technically eligible for the Calder Trophy. He is what he is now, and what he is now is a legitimate top-four defenceman in the National Hockey League. 

He’s got the size, he’s got the intelligence, he’s got the fearlessness, and he’s delivered the necessary results. Don’t be surprised at all if he’s paired with whoever of Jake Gardiner or Morgan Rielly that the leafs value more and given first pairing minutes. Don’t be surprised if he drives possession. Don’t be surprised if he makes the powerplay a bit more fun to watch, and don’t be surprised if he pulls an Artemi Panarin and takes a run at rookie of the year, even with the three wunderkinds drawing into the lineup.

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Closing Thoughts

I know that “the best ___ outside of the NHL” thing got ruined in this city by the hype Brian Burke placed on Jonas Gustavsson all those years ago, but Nikita Zaitsev has been the best defenceman in the world’s second best league for the past two seasons at the exact right age to be breaking out. He plays an NHL-style game, he’s instantly jumping into a position where the Leafs were weak last year, and he’s playing in a city that he is more familiar with than the average European signing would normally be.

He’s excited to be here. The Leafs are excited to have him. We’re talking about a legitimate top-notch player entering a league that’s passed him over multiple times with the exact surroundings that he wants to have to prove himself. Don’t be scared to get excited.

The Rankings So Far

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  • Kanuunankuula

    Hate to be a Debbie Downer, but this is not true:
    “He is what he is now, and what he is now is a legitimate top-four defenceman in the National Hockey League.”
    He hasn’t played a minute in the NHL yet, so let’s not jump to conclusions. I’m not saying his not going to make it in NHL nor that that he’s a bust, but still KHL game doesn’t always translate (See Kontiola, Petri).

    • Gary Empey

      This guy is not just another defenceman from the KHL.

      Two days after being named one of the top two defensemen at the the IIHF World Championship, Nikita Zaitsev was one of six players to be given a Golden Helmet award for being the best player at his position, as voted on by the head coaches of the Kontinental Hockey League.

      PS – The rookie of the year award went to Artyom Alyayev, a 21 year old undrafted defenceman

      5′ 9″…178 lbs.

      • Kanuunankuula

        Yes I never said he’s not good… In the KHL. Until he comes over and plays, it’s all speculation how it translates. I think he’s going to be fine on the NA ice, and there’s nothing to worry about. But to say so for certain is just lying.

        People may not want to hear it, but he is not a slam dunk

  • Gary Empey

    Not trying to split hairs but I had Zaitsev slightly ahead of Nylander at 3rd. Reason, because I feel he will be a top four D man on the Leafs. In fact I feel he might push Reilly for number one on the team. Zaitsev plays a more premier position over Nylander.

    What I find interesting is the hockey panel has him all over the place. Adam ranked him at 8… Really. Only 4 out of 9 (hockey panel) had him in the right spot.

    Since all of Leafs Nation has Mathews, Marner and Nylander at 1 2 and 3. You have to be clueless not to put Zaitsev 4th because after him there is a dropoff to the next prospect Kapanen.

  • Oilers Rule

    Zaitsev should have joined the Oilers.

    However, even playing with the Leafs he will win the Calder this year as he’s an absolute stud. Leaf fans don’t even know yet what they lucked into with Zaitsev, but will all be singing his praises soon as he’s better than Morgan Riley.

  • V

    If the leafs are in a playoff position, come next spring, this guy will be part of the reason why!

    Personally, with all the influx of skill (at every position, not jut Zaitsev), average goaltending, the older guys having their second year under Babcock, I honestly think we will be either in the playoffs, or damn near it. Unless there is a *CBJ year of injuries, it should be a very possible outcome.

    My only concern is the wear and tear on the new kids. If we can manage to either limit their ice time to 15-18 mins a night, or 20 mins in a few games, I see them fairing pretty well. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see player rotation with healthy scratches and maintenance days, given our nhl ready body count.

  • V

    I remain convinced The Monster was ruined by Francois Allaire’s attempt to make him play a certain style. Over time you could see it was messing with his game. Three heart surgeries in 3 yrs doesn’t help either. I wish him well in Edmonton, but no doubt “he is what he is now.”

  • Koocheecoo

    Looking forward to what could be a very mobile and potent Leafs power play with this ‘kid’ teeing it off from the point. Looks like a monster with a bomb of a shot in the KHL highlights. Hope his transition into the NHL will be a good one.

  • JB#1

    I’m really pulling for him to be successful with the Leafs.

    As The Russian Rocket said above, getting a potential 1st or 2nd pairing D-man for nothing is a STEAL.

    What I find fascinating about this situation is he seemed determined from the get–go that the Leafs were his team.

    If I’m Leafs management, I’m picking his brain about that to find out what drew him to the Leafs and try to replicate that scenario over and over.

    As the Leafs become more successful and drafting gems becomes harder and harder, being able to get guys like this for nothing is going to play a big part in keeping the Leafs competitive – just look at the Blackhawks. Where would they be this past year without Panarin?