Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Leafs Season in Review: Nikita Zaitsev

For this installment of the Season in Review series, we’ll be taking a look at the somewhat disappointing year that Nikita Zaitsev had.

The primary disappointment, especially for Zaitsev himself, is the amount of time missed this season. He first dealt with a foot injury suffered in mid-December, and then in March he was dealing with an illness.

In addition, this second year with Toronto for Zaitsev left something to be desired for many Leafs fans. It doesn’t help that it’s difficult to mention his name without mentioning his price tag. Coming off of a rare single-year entry level contract in his first NHL season, the Leafs signed Zaitsev to a 7 year, $31.5M contract, carrying a $4.25M AAV and cap hit. Having those expectations coming into this season did not work well for Zaitsev, as we’ll get into in more detail below.

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60 5 8 13 47.49 49.98

After a stellar NHL debut in 2016-17 where Zaitsev scored 36 points, played top pairing minutes for most of the year, stayed in for the full 82 games, and nearly kept things afloat Corsi-wise, things took a turn south in 2017-18.

Production-wise, obviously the lower minutes hurt Zaitsev this season. His 5-on-5 points-per-hour dropped from 0.8 to 0.66, which is still a significant drop-off, but the gap is smaller than raw point totals. This shows that the lower time-on-ice affected his scoring output – it wasn’t just that he was playing worse.

Another big change was his powerplay usage. In 2016-17, Toronto used Zaitsev quite a lot on the powerplay. He got 160 minutes there, and scored 11 of his points with the advantage. In 2017-18, though, he saw just 14 minutes, and got 0 points. This is obviously a huge factor on his all-situations point totals, which is what’s identified in the table above.

In shot attempt numbers (Corsi for just counting shot attempts, Expected Goals For [xGF] for factoring in shot locations), Zaitsev wasn’t terrible but he wasn’t good either. You could say that in between good and terrible is “bad”, though it’s hardly ever fair to use that word given that these are the best players in the world we’re talking about. Still, this Corsi output is a negative influence on the team’s chances of success, which can’t be ignored.

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As always with those numbers, context is an important factor. To quickly glance over that for Zaitsev, we know he was on the second pairing for almost all of this year. This is in contrast to 2016-17, where he was playing top pairing most of the year, as mentioned above. The result of this change was Zaitsev did see lower Quality of Competition (QoC), but an even lower Quality of Teammates (QoT). This is to be expected when shifting down a pairing. This is important though, because we know that in the long term (like, for anything more than a few games) QoT has a much bigger effect (at least in using the numbers we’re using), so this likely weighed down on Zaitsev’s shot attempt statistics to some degree. Or, more accurately, this year he didn’t have the positive influence of gooquality of teammates that he had the season prior (51.2% Corsi QoT in 2016, 50.4% in 2017).

Grade: C+

The details so far have been very forgiving, and maybe that’s because there’s a natural desire to want Zaitsev to be good. However, you can’t argue with the output he had, and that output was not good. I’m not trying to be too negative here – I think there’s opportunity to improve. But to judge what he did in this season alone, to analyze what his results were, as opposed to looking at his ability, the grade has to be low.

Fun Fact

Nikita Zaitsev was drafted into the KHL as a 4th overall pick in 2009. In his draft year, he was the only player to stay in the KHL system that actually made it to the NHL (so far, anyway).

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NHLers from that KHL draft year include former Leaf, Jiri Tlusty; former Edmonton Oiler, Taylor Hall; and former Ottawa Senator Erik Karlsson.

Season Highlight

This passing play was great fun to watch, and Zaitsev’s shot to bury it was great. I also love this highlight because it features two Leafs who were around a lot in the early year, but gone to the wind now, in Calle Rosen and Eric Fehr. Rosen actually got into the goal himself with that one touch pass to Brown for his first and only (so far) NHL point.

2018-19 Outlook

Looking out to next season, it seems like it’s on every Leaf fan’s mind to overhaul the right side of the defense. Ron Hainsey can’t hold his own as a top pairing defenseman, and given the results above, it doesn’t look like Nikita Zaitsev can hold his own as a top four defenseman either.

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Everything will depend on what the Leafs do in terms of outside acquisitions. Being realistic, Nikita Zaitsev will be a Leaf next year. That contract is too big to move after the disappointing year he had. Where he will play will be a different question.

Many have noted previously, especially our own Ian Tulloch, that Zaitsev’s best performances as a Leaf were when he was paired with Martin Marincin. The key may have been that Marincin’s reserved style allowed Zaitsev to drive the offense. On his two major pairings with Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, that has not been the case. One idea to get back to this is to put Hainsey and Zaitsev together on a pairing. But with the emergence of Travis Dermott, the left side of the defense is locked up until Jake Gardiner’s contract is up in 2020, so this may not be possible without moving Rielly, Gardiner or Dermott to their off-side, and we know the effect that can have on puck moving defensemen. We also know that Mike Babcock doesn’t prefer to do this.

Otherwise, it’s probable that Hainsey and Zaitsev stay on the right side. I’m optimistic that someone can be brought in ahead of them to move them appropriately down the depth chart, but of course, we will have to see.

Special teams wise, it’s unlikely we see Zaitsev play the powerplay unless in the case of an injury to Morgan Rielly or Jake Gardiner. Even then, it’s more likely that Travis Dermott is next on the call list there. Penalty killing was a huge part of Zaitsev’s time commitment this season and I don’t expect that to change, but I definitely hope the above-mentioned acquisition can bear some of the load there off of Hainsey, Zaitsev and Polak’s shoulders. It’s interesting that the Leafs’ defense has been set up to drive offense on the left side, and defend on the right side.

Finally, I am hopeful that Zaitsev can improve going into next season. Keeping a consistent place in the lineup by avoiding injury would be a huge help, obviously. Additionally, you’d hope that playing further down the lineup would allow for that creative freedom he has the talent for, but doesn’t have the opportunity to display when defending all the time. Either way, an improvement should be in the works.


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  • FlareKnight

    Fingers crossed that next year will be an improvement for him. With that kind of contract….you really want him to succeed.

    At the very least he has room for improvement.

  • magesticRAGE

    Good write-up. He is not this bad. I’m willing to bet that he will look like a much different (effective) player playing for Russia than for DJ Smith’s defensive system, which didn’t work. I’m hoping that system (or staffing) tweaks will fix some of the ugly this past year. As I see it as costing the Leafs the first round.