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Photo Credit: Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports

2016-17 Leafs Season in Review: Nikita Zaitsev

Everybody’s favourite rookie-yet-veteran is back, and he’s back for a long time. Nikita Zaitsev is next on our list of player in our season-in-review series, and he’s one taking a look at with a diligent eye, given that he’s just signed a seven-year extension after just one year of NHL play.

Some love it. Some hate it. Let’s mildly investigate it.

Strengths

Firstly, almost everything that rang true about Zaitsev in the KHL as far as the “eye-test” goes seemed to translate very well to the big leagues. While his top end speed isn’t quite elite, he showed excellent mobility and agility that helped with his ability to track players. He showed no fear in getting in the path of shots and passes, had little issue making quick decisions, and was very good at moving the puck.

The latter point was especially noticeable on the scoresheet; Zaitsev finished third in rookie point production with four goals and 32 assists in a full 82 game season. He was one of Toronto’s better primary point producing defencemen at even strength (behind Jake Gardiner and, interestingly, Matt Hunwick), and was able to contribute on both the powerplay and penalty kill.

Players at his age making an immediate impact in the NHL as a defencemen are very are. Zaitsev tied Francois Beauchemin for most points scored by an age 25 or older rookie defenceman in the cap era with his efforts; Beauchemin was just a year away from being a key cog in a Stanley Cup winning core when he made his debut.

Weaknesses

A lot of the skepticism surrounding Zaitsev’s contract extension is rooted in underlying numbers, and it’s hard to blame people. Zaitsev gave up more shot attempts, unblocked shot attempts, shots, goals, and expected goals than his peers. He was helpful pushing back the other way, but not enough to get a percentage differential that was all that beneficial to the team. Zaitsev performed the worst in preventing shots that came from areas considered “scoring chance” areas, giving up significantly more opportunities than any other defenceman on the team.

That much is certainly alarming. At the same time, giving context to the minutes is key as well; Zaitsev started a higher percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than the rest of his teammates, and most matchup driven metrics have him spending the bulk of his time facing the toughest opponents available for much of the time that he’s on the ice. Names like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, John Tavares, Brad Marchand, Claude Giroux, Jaromir Jagr, Henrik Zetterberg, and Mark Stone litter his most frequent matchups list; combine that with penalty kill time, and you realize that this is a player that’s been playing hockey at full tilt all season. Even when Morgan Rielly was swapped for Jake Gardiner on Zaitsev’s pair, they kept facing the tougher matchups; Zaitsev, as the clear-cut top right-handed defenceman on the team, was locked into the big matchups.

Injuries are a concern now too. Zaitsev suffered his first concussion of his career in Game 82 of the regular season and missed a couple of games in the playoffs because of it. Right now, we have no idea if that’ll have a long-term impact on his game.

Looking Ahead

The matchup/usage point above is going to be a huge staple of discussion next season. Of course, the goal is to have a player thrive in that time, not struggle. Was he in too deep to have a chance? It’s hard to say. Will it be an issue if he can’t build on his results this year? Probably; you want a player of his quality and commitment to be swimming smoothly, not just trying to avoid drowning.

At the same time, if the rumours that the Leafs will make a swing at adding another clear-cut, minute-eating capable defenceman are true, he should get a bit of room to breathe and play minutes that are along the lines of your average very good but not elite defenceman; which is where he projects to stand. My one semi-knock is that I’d love to see the Leafs find a more threatening option to man the point on the second powerplay unit, but even that might be teachable within him.

Getting a player like that as a free wallet is still astonishing when you think about it. Zaitsev, for all intents and purposes, is probably the best mid-20s defenceman to debut in the NHL in this generation, and if he’s not, he’s second to a player who is only just starting to slip now at 38 on a historically bad team.

Whatever his next step is, one thing is for sure; the Leafs got a bargain in acquiring him, and he certainly did his best to hold the fort in a year where they didn’t have a ton of trust in the other options on his side of the ice. All things considered, I’m curious as to what’s next for him.