Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY SPORTS
This offseason, the Leafs signed Nikita Zaitsev, a KHL free agent that brought much anticipation. The Leafs were in desperate need for improvement on the right side of their defense, and Nikita Zaitsev’s play promised to bring that.
There were some that were skeptical of just how much an impact he could have, including myself. After all, we’re still not totally sure how the KHL stacks up against the NHL, since that league is so volatile these days. Could Zaitsev really be a top 4 defenseman in his first NHL season?
He definitely can.
The Leafs’ newest defenseman has had his role steadily increased over the early part of the season. He started with Hunwick, moving to a pairing with Gardiner for a short time, before finally moving to the top pairing with Morgan Rielly. He also plays on the Leafs’ 2nd powerplay unit.
To scout Zaitsev’s game, it feels very calm and effective. He draws similarities to Jeff Petry in that regard, and early-career Stephane Robidas (without the physicality). And of course, the Leafs’ own poster boy for calm, effective defense: Jake Gardiner.
The table above shows that Zaitsev’s shot generation numbers are average or not very good (he has a worse rel xGF60 than Polak!), but his shot prevention numbers are pretty good. Given that he is paired with Morgan Rielly, an elite shot generation player with poor shot prevention numbers, this seems like a match made in heaven.
Of 52 pairings that have played 300 minutes of ice time this season, Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev are 23rd in the NHL in Score-Zone-and-Venue-Adjusted CF%, so they’re about average. They’re also 19th in time-on-ice competition, and have the 43rd most difficult zone starts, neither of which would significantly influence their CF%. Their PDO is 99.52% so we can’t expect them to really regress in either direction. Altogether, it seems the pairing isn’t dominating, but they’re not getting killed either. For a couple of 23-year-olds on a top pairing, that isn’t so bad.
I wanted to focus on the positive effect Zaitsev has been having on Morgan Rielly. The below images show Morgan Rielly’s CF% on a 15-game rolling average (in blue). The image is from Corsica (Rolling Average Tab), and the D-partners (in red) come from hockeyviz.com.
This image shows that since the end of the 2014-15 season, Morgan Rielly has had a steadily increasing CF%. There are the bad stretches in 2015-16 where Rielly was playing with Hunwick and Marincin, and the really bad stretches in 2014-15 where he was playing with Polak, Eric Brewer and Stephane Robidas.
Specifically, it shows see the steady rise in 2016-17 so far, where Rielly has really progressed into a solid CF% player. I believe this is partly due to his growth as a defenseman on his own, but due to the influence of Nikita Zaitsev.
It maybe isn’t the case that Zaitsev is a top-pairing defenseman in terms of his own ability. He certainly isn’t as good as Jake Gardiner right now. But he works well with Rielly and that’s very important if Rielly is going to continue as this team’s #1 defenseman. Unless the Leafs can go get Chris Tanev or someone on that level, Zaitsev is the best partner for Rielly that the Leafs have. It could be that those two are better suited for a 2nd pairing role, but one could say with certainty that they are really solid as a pairing.
Zaitsev himself needs to work on being more involved in the powerplay production, with only 2 points there, if he wants to maintain his role there.