Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

The Nikita Zaitsev Contract Is Bad And The Leafs Will Probably Regret Signing It

The Toronto Maple Leafs announced Tuesday that they had signed Nikita Zaitsev to a 7-year contract extension with a salary cap hit of $4.5 million per season, as Bob McKenzie had been reporting would happen since before the playoffs started.  In his rookie campaign in Toronto Zaitsev clearly earned coach Mike Babcock’s trust, playing 22:01 per night, essentially tied with Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner for the team lead in average ice time.  Babcock had Zaitsev playing against top competition night in and night out, and the Leafs decided to reward the Russian rookie for his performance.

Opinions on the signing seem to be somewhat divided, but I think among Leafs fans they tend to lean towards thinking it’s a good deal.  I’ve strongly disagreed with that stance, and in this article, I’m going to outline why.  The main argument against the deal seems to be that the Leafs are taking a lot of risk with the length of the contract – even if Zaitsev is good now, we have no idea how good he’ll be in the long run, and he’s already right around the average age of peak performance, so he’s unlikely to get much better.

But I think even that line of thinking is wrong.  Even if we look at right now, Zaitsev simply doesn’t perform like the kind of player you want to think of as part of the core through what the Leafs likely see as their window to contend.  A wide array of statistics paint Nikita Zaitsev as mediocre or worse, and I’m going to dig into many of those numbers here.

A significant portion of the results of a hockey game are determined not in the offensive or defensive zones, but in the neutral zone.  Strong play at and between the blue lines correlates strongly to other statistics that matter, like shots and goals.  So a good place to start with Zaitsev is by looking at how he performs in the neutral zone.  I’m going to use data from Corey Sznajder‘s tracking project for this portion of the post.  The full data set isn’t available publically, but you can get access to it by donating to Corey’s GoFundMe (which I recommend doing if you’re interested in this kind of thing).

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Let’s start by taking a look at how well Zaitsev does at one of the most important things a defenceman is tasked with – preventing the other team from crossing Toronto’s blue line with the puck.  (All numbers in this section are for 5v5 play only.)

Player Carry-in% Break-up%
Matt Hunwick 57.8% 10.8%
Jake Gardiner 58.2% 8.2%
Martin Marincin 62.1% 6.1%
Morgan Reilly 63.4% 6.2%
Connor Carrick 65.2% 7.8%
Roman Polak 67.2% 4.1%
Nikita Zaitsev 70.5% 5.8%

Carry-in% is how often the puck was successfully skated into Toronto’s zone when a particular defenceman was targeted (lower is better).  Break-up% is how often the defenceman broke the play up at the blue line (as opposed to letting the puck in, whether by a pass, dump-in, etc.).

There’s no other way to put it except to say that Zaitsev did the worst job on the Leafs in terms of defending the blue line, at least in the games that Corey has tracked.  He rarely broke up entries and frequently allowed the puck to enter Toronto’s defensive zone under opposition control.

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You may be surprised by how good Jake Gardiner’s results look, but you shouldn’t be.  As I’ve argued on a number of occasions Jake Gardiner is really good defensively.

Let’s also take a look at how well Zaitsev does compared to his teammates in terms of getting the puck out of Toronto’s defensive zone.

Player Exit% Possession Exit%
Connor Carrick 75.2% 53.2%
Morgan Reilly 76.1% 53.0%
Jake Gardiner 79.8% 51.1%
Nikita Zaitsev 65.0% 42.7%
Matt Hunwick 74.8% 39.8%
Roman Polak 72.3% 33.3%
Martin Marincin 75.0% 31.9%

Exit% is the ratio of a player’s puck touches in the defensive zone that are cleared into the neutral zone.  Possession exit% is the frequency with which the Leafs maintain possession during those exits.  Possession exit% (also known as “controlled exits”) is the more important of the two statistics since the ultimate goal is to get the puck up the ice to attack, not just to throw it back to the other team.

Zaitsev’s results again are not good.  He has by far the lowest rate of overall exits.  His rate of exits that lead to Toronto possessions is better, around the middle of the team, but still significantly behind the good passers on the team like Gardiner and Rielly.  Zaitsev’s rate is more comparable to Matt Hunwick, and while I think Hunwick is a decent depth defender, no one would be happy to see him given a $30M+ contract.

It’s also worth noting that Zaitsev ices the puck significantly more than his teammates.  Here are the number of icings each Leafs defenceman has been responsible for in the games that Corey has tracked:

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Player Icing
Nikita Zaitsev 22
Morgan Reilly 11
Connor Carrick 7
Jake Gardiner 7
Roman Polak 7
Matt Hunwick 6
Martin Marincin 6

Zaitsev ices the puck twice as often as Morgan Rielly, who was his primary defence partner for most of the season, and three times as often as Jake Gardiner, who played a similar number of minutes.  The combination of Zaitsev’s zone exit and icing rates suggest a player who has difficulty transitioning from offence to defence.  This is especially concerning given that his defensive results at the blue line were not good to begin with.

Once the puck gets into the neutral zone, the attacking team still has to get it across the other blue line before they can generate scoring opportunities.  How does Zaitsev do in terms of getting the puck across the attacking blue line?

Player Carry-in% Dump-in %
Morgan Reilly 51.00% 49.00%
Jake Gardiner 42.60% 57.40%
Nikita Zaitsev 34.70% 65.30%
Matt Hunwick 31.00% 69.00%
Roman Polak 27.30% 72.70%
Connor Carrick 20.50% 79.50%
Martin Marincin 4.20% 95.80%

Here Zaitsev looks a bit better, although his closest comparable is still Matt Hunwick, and he still lags behind Gardiner and especially Rielly by a fairly wide margin (zone entries are one of the areas where Morgan Rielly really shines).

The sum total of Zaitsev’s neutral zone play is not impressive.  His neutral zone numbers suggest a player who is a little less effective than Matt Hunwick.

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While neutral zone play is important, it’s not the only thing that matters.  Once the puck is in the offensive zone some players are better at turning plays into goals than others, whether through their passing or their own goal scoring ability.  Let’s take a look at how each of the Leafs’ defencemen does in terms of taking shots (iS/60) and making passes to players who shoot the puck (SA/60, a.k.a. shot assists).  These stats are per 60 minutes of 5v5 play and they come from the pass-tracking project led by Ryan Stimson.

Player iS/60 SA/60
Morgan Reilly 12.6 9.2
Jake Gardiner 9.0 8.2
Connor Carrick 12.1 6.6
Nikita Zaitsev 6.8 6.5
Martin Marincin 16.7 5.4
Matt Hunwick 8.3 4.4
Roman Polak 9.9 4.4

Once again we see Morgan Rielly really shining at the offensive end of the ice, with Jake Gardiner’s passing also looking good.  Zaitsev’s passing rate isn’t terrible, around the middle of the team, though his personal shot rate is very low.  Despite the fact that Zaitsev scored the 2nd highest number of points among Leafs defencemen at 5v5 this season, we’re not seeing a lot of evidence in either the neutral zone or passing & shot stats that Zaitsev is actually creating a whole lot of offence himself.  He largely seems to be the beneficiary of his teammates play.


One thing that can be helpful to look at to get a handle on how well a player plays relative to his team-mates is to look at the Corsi ratio that other players on the team put up while playing with that player and while playing with others.  This is usually known as WOWYs (with or without yous).  Here are Zaitsev’s WOWYs with all four left-shooting defencemen on the Leafs (he played very few minutes with right-shooting defencemen):

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Player TOI w/ 22 CF% w/ 22 CF% w/o 22
Morgan Rielly 813:19 49.2% 52.0%
Jake Gardiner 315:10 47.6% 53.0%
Matt Hunwick 121:03 45.8% 50.0%
Martin Marincin 118:27 56.7% 47.8%

For some reason Martin Marincin and Nikita Zaitsev had great results together, but it was a small number of minutes and seems like it’s probably a fluke due to the sample size.  The two players who Zaitsev spent almost all of his minutes with this season, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, both played far better when they were apart from him than when they played with him.  Rielly sees a 2.8% boost to his Corsi when playing without Zaitsev and Gardiner sees a remarkable 5.4% boost when apart from #22.

The criticism that I know Zaitsev’s defenders will have of what I’m presenting in that chart above is that Zaitsev plays the toughest minutes on the team, so of course, players get a boost when they’re not with him.  I do think that consistently facing difficult competition can drag down a player’s numbers, as I recently wrote when discussing Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly.  But difficult competition is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for bad results.  They can account for some decrease in a player’s performance, but at a certain point, the numbers are bad because a player just isn’t performing well.

And here’s one thing we can look at to see that difficult competition is not sufficient to explain Zaitsev’s numbers: partway through the season (March 14th, to be exact), Mike Babcock made a switch and started playing Jake Gardiner alongside Zaitsev in those difficult minutes, easing Morgan Rielly’s workload.  Looking only from March 14th until the end of the season (ie. the period when Jake and Nikita played together), how do each player’s numbers look?

Player Player’s CF% Zaitsev’s CF%
Jake Gardiner 50.2% 45.9%

When Gardiner got put in the tough minutes role with Zaitsev his numbers took a hit, but he still considerably outplayed Zaitsev, putting up a Corsi rate 4.3% higher, despite the fact that the two spent most of their ice time together!  At the end of the day, Zaitsev has struggled in the role the Leafs are asking him to play, and other players (like Gardiner) have shown that they’re able to handle those minutes without such poor results.

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Zaitsev’s defensive results were not good, but his point total was still pretty impressive, right?  36 points as a rookie looks solid.  But even there we find that the numbers aren’t as good as they might first appear.

Zaitsev scored 9 points at 5v4 this season, just 1 behind Jake Gardiner, which sounds good.  But of those 9 points, none were goals and 8 were secondary assists.  Primary assists are a result of repeatable talent, but secondary assists are almost entirely random.  They have a minimal relationship to long-term output.  So in 166 minutes of 5v4 play this season, Nikita Zaitsev had one primary point.  So even though Zaitsev played a lot on the powerplay, he didn’t really create a lot of offence in those minutes.

If we include only primary points (ie. no secondary assists), Zaitsev’s scoring in all situations falls to 3rd on the Leafs defence, with his 17 points ranking behind Morgan Rielly’s 19 (with far less powerplay time), and Jake Gardiner’s 23.  Being 3rd behind Gardiner and Rielly isn’t that bad (he’s well ahead of everyone else), but it is worth noting that Zaitsev’s point totals this year are inflated due to a high rate of secondary assists.  When combining that with his mediocre shot and passing rates at 5v5, it’s fair to wonder if Zaitsev’s point totals moving forward might be lower than they were this season.


So what do we get when we put all the pieces together?  Nikita Zaitsev scores a reasonable amount of points, but he doesn’t generate a lot of offence on his own.  He struggles to keep the puck out of the Leafs defensive zone, and he struggles to get the puck back up ice once he recovers it.  On the whole, the results are not good.  The closest comparable on the team seems to be Matt Hunwick, a decent enough player, but not someone you want to think of as a core player.  Zaitsev seems to drag down his teammates in terms of shot rate, and that remains true even after accounting for the fact that he plays against top competition.  It’s likely that his results would improve if he was placed in an easier role, but I’m not sure how much improvement we might expect to see; as I’ve said, he seems to be like Matt Hunwick with a bit better offensive instincts.

If Zaitsev is already struggling now, at 25 years old, right around peak performance age for NHLers, I think the Leafs should be quite concerned about where his level of play will be at 3, 4, 5 years down the road.  At the moment, Zaitsev is probably best suited to play as a second-pair defenceman, chipping in a bit of offence but not being asked to handle too much defensive responsibility.  Given that that’s where he’s at right now, it seems likely the optimal role for him will be even less strenuous in the later years of this contract.  There are no guarantees when it comes to ageing, but I think it’s more likely than not that the Leafs are going to wish they hadn’t signed this contract long before it’s over.

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  • FlareKnight

    Well at least we now know what the literal embodiment of pessimism sounds like.

    I really doubt the Leafs should be concerned or actually are concerned about this. He’s more likely to have better years ahead of him after going through a difficult adjustment from his career in the KHL to NHL hockey.

    The real conclusion is that it is blogs that are replacing the main media as being the sources of pessimism for the Leafs. They are finally figuring out that negativity sells a lot more and generates more hits than rationality.

      • Would a lot of this data not be a direct result of playing with the 2 primary puck moving D’s on the squad?? Percentages (passes, zone entry / exits etc) are great in some respect.. but give me the attempts as well, to give it a little perspective. Also… how often did Zaitsev retrieve / funnel the puck to his puck carrying D partner in a good position to enter / exit zones? It’s his JOB to get the puck to those guys to enter / exit so Jake and Morgan can do their JOBS. Numbers like this are a great “tool”.. but I’m not making roster/contract decisions based solely on this information. To do so would be as silly as totally ignoring these same “tools”.

        Bottom line.. as a 3/4 R shot D this is good value from 25-32. Have a look around the league and compare these same numbers / salary / age. That may give a better assessment of this signing…

  • Robert

    In the article, you discuss Zaitsev as if he’s like every other 25 yr old defense man, but he’s not. Unlike most 25 yr old d-men, he had not played any hockey on NHL size ice, since he played in the KHL until this season. That is why I have some faith he can still improve, even if he’ll be 26 starting next season. Maybe I’m naive, but I believe some of his style of play could be a result of how he had been coached(growing up plus 7 pro yrs) to play KHL style hockey on the international ice surface. The areas of his play discussed in the article, I feel are coachable talents. Therefore, I’m hopeful that with his yr of experience, along with Babcock’s coaching that he’ll be more adjusted to NHL style hockey and his style of play will translate better next yr & beyond. So, while most d-men at 25 are nearing peak ability and what you see is what you get, I don’t think we should assume that to be the case with Zaitsev. I believe he can get better.
    However, saying all that, I don’t love the contract(A 4-5 yr deal would have been fine, IMO) but I also don’t hate it & am not as negative about it as you seem to. Especially if by the time years 5/6/7 come around he’s been a part of a 1 or 2 time Stanley Cup Champion team. I’d love it to be 3 or more, but going 50 years without a cup, I can’t be too greedy.

  • Justin.PI

    Articles like this are widely appreciated and are generally good reads, but at the end of the day analytics only do so much for you. Zaitsev makes his fair share of mistakes for sure, but does check a lot of boxes for the eye test as well. Part of the reason i’m sure zaitsev was given this contract was due to his skating ability, which will remain his greatest asset as he gets older, and his defense will improve. Evidence? look at Gardiner. Also to note, Kyle Dubas is kind’ve an analytics Guru, part of the reason he’s you know, an assistant GM and your posting on a blog, no offense. It’s a good read, and while I respect your opinion, come on man. The leafs management were probably aware of all this light years ago and are probably working on a plan for zaitsev to focus on this summer. As always, have faith. They’ve rarely screwed up so far.

      • Stan Smith

        Gardiner always had offensive talent, and was great and carrying and passing the puck. As a dman he was not always good. In fact at times he was simply atrocious. While his defensive game will never be his strong suit, he is now competent enough defensively to be considered good overall.

        • Kanuunankuula

          How is it not his strong suit? He’s still by far the best D-man we have? As to him being bad, if you want him to play like Polak, well he’s not going to do well at that, he’s not that player. If you let him be Jake, he’s pretty great.

  • Kevin

    Good article. The numbers are interesting and correlate with what I saw on the ice (for the most part). I agree that long term the Zaitsev contract may be something Leafs management regrets. There is some reason for optimism. We can’t discount the adjustment period from the KHL and that horrendous stretch with Rielly was in part due to Rielly playing with the high ankle sprain and maybe its me, but there simply seemed like a lot of bad bounces/luck with that pair. I wonder how his numbers would look if that stretch was excluded from the statistics. All in all I expect Zaitsev to put up better numbers next year (in the defensive metrics), especially if the Leafs acquire a Dman that pushes him down to the second pair.

  • MartinPolak

    I have been following analytics for years now and this results from this kind of analysis is mixed. For example, many of the analytics folks claimed to have nailed Clarkson as a bad signing (though to be honest, he was much worse then anyone predicted). But I’ll give them that. That said, this type analysis has nailed good signings is Gardiner and Kadri so kudos there.

    A player who many in the analytics community have not been fond and less then luke warm was the signing of Rielly given his poor analytics. Time will tell on that contract but at worst Rielly is performing averagely and there is hope he still needs to develop, though it is unlikely he will be a big time shot suppressor. That said, Hunwick, Martin and Polak have looked really good useful for Babcock contrary to what I have read and some with poor underlying stats. That said, you know who has not looked that great despite great stats – Corrado. That is a small black eye but again it raises doubt in this holistic catch all type of analysis as it does miss things. And that leads me to Bozak – the poster boy of hate for the leaf analytic community. Can we explain why these stats back during his extension did not work well to predict his contract signing and future performance. That is, for all we know this analysis is using the same hate-Bozak narrative for Zaistev.

    And so I agree by this analysis Zaistev looks bad and should be burned at the stake. But also, the record of bloggers using analytics to make predictions of contract signing success is also suspect (just like various GMs signings are mixed). And that is where we are here. You raise some concerns but I don’t know if they are predictive and valid or simply more fear mongering “crying Bozak is wolf” to scare the sheepish villagers.

  • Patrick

    I’ve seen Zaitzev play maybe 150 games either live or on tv or the internet. Most of the games I’ve watched him play were on big ice with CSKA. My son played two seasons with Nik.
    I won’t disagree with your analysis but I’ll give what a coach thinks about Nik. First he’s a right shot and a good size with better than average fitness.
    Two: he’s got lots of experience as a first pairing in all situations including international play.
    Third his coach is Mike Babcock who arguably is the best bench coach over the last 10 seasons.
    Leafs signed Nik for potential not his past play. I’ve met Nik a few times and he’s smart, disciplined and determined. And he’s a good guy.
    So Babcock can teach and groom Nik for the length of both their contracts.
    As a coach I can’t tell you how valuable a good skating, super fit , smart right shot is to your defence.
    And finally, where is there another Zaitzev coming along? Nik always wanted to be a Leaf. He will improve especially in the neutral zone. By the way he used to ice the puck quite a bit with CSKA. He never worried about being tired. Safety first.

  • Gary Empey

    This is the reason using stats to analytically evaluate a player is pure unadulterated bullsh*t. If these stats had any validity whatsoever then not only should the Leafs not signed Zaitsev to a 7 year contract, they shouldn’t of signed him at all.

    • lukewarmwater

      Gary and Dukes as usual you summed up why the leafs management signed this 25 year old to a long contract. As has been pointed out he has been an all-star in the K.H.L. played extremely well in the recent international tournament before this past season. You see some of us trust guys like leaping Lou Lamerello and Babs knowledge of the talent level of players. As has been pointed out in reality he was a rookie in a new league forced to play most nights against the top two opposition lines. He is a good skater who in his rookie year managed 36 points and progressed as the season went along. Is he still learning, absolutely. At 4.5 million not an out rageous amount. The most illogical argument against the Russian comrade is he will be an ancient 32 at the end of the contract. Now suppose we get 5 or even 4 solid years out of him, fine with me. Btw what will the contracts for defencemen equivalent to him be in 4 to 5 years. As another poster pointed out we have Reilly, Gardiner and now Zaitsev signed for under 14 million per year. Not bad negotiating by leaf management. We have seen solid defencemen whether in the top two or the third or fourth don’t grow on trees.
      I definitely think as the leafs improve we will see more and more negative, pessimistic articles. It reminds me of Marty York when the Jays were winning world series. The only negativity he could find and he would harp on this subject on a regular basis was the fact that the Jays triple A farm team had a terrible field.
      If you are a leaf fan, try to enjoy the fun ride we are on. Now as I have stated their might be a bump or two next season, but trust me this club is heading in the right direction from the management to the talented young, exciting players including Nik to lead us to Stanley Cup contention.
      For me I just have to understand that young dedicated fans will spend countless hours working on these stats to convince themselves that this is the perfect model. Me I’ll simply watch the game enjoy the great passes, beautiful goals, great saves and enjoy a young leaf team that is making 99% of us proud.

      • Stan Smith

        I agree with you. I’m not even bothered by the length of the deal. For good dmen, and I am pretty confident from what I see with Zaitsev, we haven’t seen him at his best yet, 32 is not old. Defence is a learned position, and if you are intelligent, and healthy, you also learn to play smarter. There are lots of good 30+ dmen in the league today.

  • DukesRocks

    Leaf Nation geek squad at it again with the advance stats blah blah blah. Got tired reading the same old rhetoric half way through this article. Let’s see we’ve gone through this whole year with the geek squad telling us how much our d sucks, never ever pointing to the good things they do on the ice. How about telling us why every NHL GM stated the Leafs D is underrated and better than most think. I said this before and I’ll say it again. “I trust my eyes to tell me the value of a player” over any or most of these stats. The conclusion drawn in comparison to his teammates holds no water because the situations and minutes are different for each player. If you truly wanted to do a comparison take players from around the NHL that closely mirrors the caliber of opposition Zaitsev faces on a daily basis. Then see how much they make and compare that to his 4.5 million. You might just find this to be a sweetheart of a deal.

  • DukesRocks

    I like to ask the writer another question. If all the rookies the Leafs had on the roster this year were 2 to 3 years older, would that be an advantage to the Leafs defense?

    • lukewarmwater

      Good point Dukes let us not forget how many early games the kids panicked and gave up 2 and 3 goal leads. That happened less and less under the tutelage of Babs and the rapid experience the teens and 20 year olds were gaining. As others have stated the leaf defence was better than some of the critics thought. With the people stating this being opposing team coaches and players.

      • DukesRocks

        Luke, I was thinking the same, the last few months and playoffs, the Leafs played some beautiful hockey. All the credit has to go the Babs and his coaches. The rookies really up’d their game and in turn helped the D. Next year they will be stronger (harder to knock off the puck) and wiser and in two years with this accelerated growth, look out.

    • Gary Empey

      Instead of looking for reasons to criticize management’s decision on Zaitsev, a far better analytic approach would be to analyze why three of the best hockey brains in today’s business, Shanahan, Babcock, and Lamoriello would give Zaitsev a 7 year contract at $4.5 million.

    • The Russian Rocket

      That’s fair but I also think the concern from the author is because he compared all of this data for each defender and Zaitsev didn’t look great compared to the other Leafs D. So if the rookies are 2 or 3 years older, every defender on the Leafs should do equally better.

      • Stan Smith

        That comment is also fair, but you also have to take into consideration we are talking about a rookie, who began the season with absolutely no NHL experience.

  • Bob Canuck

    I took a slightly different approach to the Zaitsev contract. I looked at data to see where Zaitsev would slot in (first, second or third pair) and then attempted to project what the average cap hit would be for his pairing slot.

    As an aside, one of the things I have learned from sabermetrics is that it is useful to look at the projected value received by the team over the entirety of the contract and then compare that to the total cost. In baseball, it is easier to do this than in hockey because you can project the player’s WAR over the length of the contract and also what the market will pay for each unit of WAR over the same term. The idea is that over a longer-term contract, teams recognize that they will likely overpay in the latter years but will underpay in the front-end of the contract. I acknowledge that there is no WAR equivalent in hockey but I think the concept of front-end and back-end value is applicable to hockey. The challenge is how to measure that value.

    With respect to Zaitsev’s pairing slot, I looked at the 5v5 data for defensemen with at least 500 minutes of ice time during the 2016-2017 regular season. Zaitsev ranks as a second-pair defenseman according to Corsi For %, Scoring Chances For %, and High Danger Chances For %. In all three categories, he is a top-pair defenseman when it comes to CF/60, SCF/60, and HDCF/60; he is a third-pair defenseman when comes to CA/60, SCA/60, and HDCA/60. These splits are not surprising.

    I then looked at defensemen ranked 61st to 120th in terms of cap hit during the 2016-2017 season. The average cap hit in this range was approximately $3.6 million. If the average cap hit in this range increases by 5.6% or more per year, then the Leafs would break even or do better by paying $31.5 million over the term of Zaitsev contract. It’s just a guess, but I don’t see the average increasing by that much annually. It would appear that the Leafs will overpay Zaitsev. If the average increases by 2% per year, then the Leafs would overpay by approximately $4.2 million. However, over the course of 7 years, this would not be a bad overpay. The caveat is that this assumes that Zaitsev will be a second-pairing defenseman over the next 7 seasons.

    In the end, this is guess work. If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t tell. 🙂

  • Gary Empey

    The report from allhockey.ru says that Moscow CSKA, his most recent club in the KHL, offered Zaitsev 700 million rubles for two years. That is nearly US$12 million.

    A Swedish story on this report makes the point that with the lower taxes in Russia than in Canada, Zaitsev could have effectively earned up to two thirds of his full seven-year deal in just two years in Russia.

  • Benjamin

    I think we’ve lost the forest for the trees here.

    Applying the aging curve to a 25 year old rookie who had never played on NA ice is ridiculous. Quant Hockey has most NHL defenceman 3-5 years into their NHL careers by the time they’re Zaitsev’s age (http://www.quanthockey.com/Distributions/RookieAgeDistribution.php). If you don’t think that matters and that it’s unreasonable to see Zaitsev improve on his rookie season that’s fine, but it’d be interesting to hear why.

    And parse it out however you want, he was a possession-positive (we’re talking a 1.2% SZV-adjusted CF% difference between him and Gardiner btw), 36 point rookie defenceman tasked with top pairing minutes by one of the greatest hockey coaches in the world. He’s probably not Matt Hunwick 2.0.

  • tealeaves

    This is the same guy who said on twitter he didn’t know why there was such disdain for the Phaneuf extension at his signing and then a couple years later is amazed they got out from the contract. When it comes to judging performance his record rivals that of Nonis and Carlyle. If you read this article, do yourself a favour and read a more positive take (which sadly you won’t get from this site aside from a few commenters)

  • The Russian Rocket

    This is a great read. It took me by surprise in a lot of ways but now I’m going to be looking out for all of this when I watch Zaitsev next year. I’m still a Zaitsev fan but I appreciate what you’re bringing to the table here. Say what you will about analytics but an article like this is going to enhance my viewing experience. Next time he ices the puck I want to see if it’s because he painted himself in a corner or because Rielly/Gardiner painted themselves in a corner and Z is recovering and getting a whistle.

    • Benjamin

      Zaitsev iced the puck 0.18 more times per game than your average Leafs defenceman this year. So an extra one time every five games. You’re probably not going to notice.

      • The Russian Rocket

        You’re probably right. I was thinking about how many times the Leafs iced the puck in the Washington series which was every other shift in some of those 3rd periods. Either way, I didn’t know Zaitsev was the least likely to break-up a play at the Leafs blueline. That’s another thing I want to see in action. Context is important. Is his break-up stat lower because he’s defending the most 2 on 1s for example?

      • Just to provide some context, the manually tracked data from Corey Sznajder only has 21 games from the regular season so far. Based on this sample, Zaitsev’s icing it 1.05 times per game, while the average Leafs defenseman averages 0.45 icings per game.

        So he’s ices the puck about half a time more per game than the average Leafs D, which certainly isn’t nothing. I’m definitely going to watch him a lot closer next year on zone exits to see if I can pick up on why this is happening so frequently.

        • Gary Empey

          A defenceman icing the puck once a game you consider frequent? Babcock tells the D if they don’t have a play then ice it, rather than turn it over like some of the other numskulls.

  • Stan Smith

    One huge fact that has been pushed aside in this article is it was Zaitsev’s first season in the NHL. Going into this season he had ZERO games experience in the NHL. To me your assumption that he will more then liklely not get any better is ludicrous. I would be shocked if we don’t see a signficant improvement next season, now that he has had a season to get acclimated. As for “peaking” it isn’t like players peak and then decline in ability the season after. He is only 25 years old. He should easily be able to come close to playing at his “peak” for at least 5 years, and probably more. I think this deal will be one more smart deal for Leafs management to go along with Kadri’s, Rielly’s and Gardiner’s.

    • For once Stan, I agree with you. I have to believe playing defense in the NHL is akin to playing centre in the NHL. All we heard this season is that Matthews was good but, if he had one flaw, it was in the faceoff dot. He needed to get accustomed to the league and his opposition’s tendencies. He already had quick hands and won his relative fair share but a minuscule improvement in hand-eye should get him there shortly. You hear the same things when a players jumps from the AHL. Marginal upgrades in speed and mental processing.

      Zaitsev needs to learn his opposition’s tendencies. Who are the preferred zone entry leaders on each team and how do you defend them? Additionally, his rookie status means he likely defers on zone exits to someone like Gardiner or Rielly. I know their ages and expectations are different, but my expectations of Zaitsev last season aren’t considerably higher than Carrick as opposed to this article moreso comparing him to Rielly or Gardiner. Sure, his expectations are higher now given the contract, but I find it unfair to judge his performance last season so harshly when his contact only takes effect next year.

      On another note, I wonder what the effects of the opposing wingers have on these stats. What’s the chances that he faced a higher quality of competition on the opposing left wing compared to what Rielly or Gardiner faced on the right wing? I’ve done some research before for fantasy hockey reasons and one thing I noticed is that while there is lots of offensive depth on the right wing, some of the top winger producers play on the left side (Ovechkin, Benn, Gaudreau, Pacioretty, Hall, Forsberg, Panarin, etc.). I’m sure the balance changes every few seasons but I’ve never seen this considered, especially given Zaitsev was playing directly against these top line players in his first season.

      • Stan Smith

        I would also think that being new to the league a player would tend to play more conservatively. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if Babcock was instructing him to do so. On opposition zone entries, standing up at the blueline is great if it works, but if you miss, you give up an “A” scoring chance. The safer play is keep your body between the puck carrier and the net, and steer him towards the corner. In doing so you have given up a zone entry.

        In zone exits, whether you are paired with Rielly or Gardiner you are with the top two puck handling dmen on the team. As a rookie do you try making the pass out of the zone, or do you make the short, safe pass to your partner and allow them to make the play? As a coach, what are you instructing the player to do?

        Number guys like to downplay the importance of things like hits, (Zaitsev 176, Gardiner 69, Rielly 46, and blocked shots Zaitsev 136, Rielly 120, Gardiner 83) but those are valuable tools for a dman. Zaitsev is already a better dman without the puck than both Rielly and Gardiner. Given a year or two experience he could become the cornerstone of the Leafs D. I’m not saying he will, just that he has that potential.

  • STAN

    You know, I respect math. Pythagorus was groundbreaking math dude. But this obsession with math in hockey is insane. Just watching Zaitsev (y’know, with the eyeballs) is enough to show you that he may be the Leafs best d-man next season or the one after. He’s smart, decisive and skates well. It’s a great contract.

  • tyhee

    Circling back to an article two years later means hardly anyone will ever see this comment, but it’s worthwhile noting just how accurate the analysis has turned out to be and how wrong those who criticized it were.