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.
|Jeff||Ryan H.||Shawn||Ryan F.||Adam||Dom||Jess||Katy||Readers|
This is Zaitsev’s first year in the Leafs organization.
|D||Moscow, RUS||6’2||196||Right||CSKA Moscow||Free Agent (2016)|
|17||MHK Krylia Sovetov-2||Russia4||23||6||12||18||N/A||24||N/A|
|18||Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk||MHL||4||0||1||1||3.69||2||2|
|19||Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk||MHL||4||1||2||3||11.07||0||1|
|20||Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk||MHL||4||4||0||4||14.76||0||3|
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.
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.
|pGPSn||pGPSs||pGPS%||pGPS PPG||pGPS PP82||pGPSr|
|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.
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 Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) May 2, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #5 Kasperi Kapanen
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #6 Connor Brown
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #7 Andreas Johnson
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #8 Dmytro Timashov
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #9 Travis Dermott
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #10 Nikita Soshnikov
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #11 Jeremy Bracco
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #12 Brendan Leipsic
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #13 Zach Hyman
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #14 Carl Grundstrom
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #15 Andrew Nielsen
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #16 Tobias Lindberg
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #17 Yegor Korshkov
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #18 Adam Brooks
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #19 Kasimir Kaskisuo
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #20 Garret Sparks
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: 10 players who received no votes from us
- TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: Honourable Mentions