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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason Player Preview: Nikita Zaitsev

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev is lined up to have an interesting season. Coming off of a lackluster 2017-18 regular season and his sophomore year in the NHL, the Russian blueliner is still to be relied on by Mike Babcock and co.

The (almost) 27-year-old defenceman was the scapegoat for many fans throughout his second year with the Leafs and in the NHL. With his freshly-signed long-term contract hovering over his head like a nameplate in NHL 2002, Zaitsev was under scrutiny for his mediocre play. He wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t great either.

His most common blueline partner last year was Jake Gardiner and by a lot. The two defencemen spent a total of 880 minutes together at even-strength – Zaitsev only had 218 minutes away from Gardiner at even-strength in his 60 games he played last year.

Gardiner made Zaitsev a better player. Together, they were able to have a less-than-ideal 48.94 CF% at even-strength, but they were still able to positively affect the games with a 52.00 GF% at even-strength – they outscored their shot attempt issues.

But that is a dangerous game to play; to hope that a pairing, without controlling the play for most of the game, will be successful on both sides of the ice. There might never be a change this upcoming season, but he can possibly change his game. As the Babcock and the Leafs might slightly change their system to evolve into the NHL powerhouse they are destined to be, Zaitsev may see himself in a different light.

Let’s hope that Zaitsev is able to return into more of his 2016-17 passing form and quickly forget about all the failed attempts that happened just last season. He just has to be one of those defenders that do the “wave their stick around at their own blueline to prevent zone entries”. The Danny DeKeyser or Martin Marincin move, often utilized by slow blueliners, can be effective with someone that can move the puck like Zaitsev.

During this preseason, he had his offensive ability slowly creep back into his game and give fans a glimmer of hope that he can be a top-4 staple.

Should we see Zaitsev back with Jake Gardiner on his left, that forms a fairly mobile pairing that was not able to use that mobility to their full extent last season. Perhaps Babcock had an epiphany over the offseason and got rid of his bank-it-off-the-glass strategy for zone exits, but if that stays the same then Gardiner-Zaitsev will stay in the mediocre world that will get outshot most of the time.

Comparing the 2017-18 Leafs shot attempts to the rest of the league’s average, with or without Zaitsev is a little shocking. That right-side on the blueline is completely void of any regular shot attempts when Zaitsev is on the ice – that’s where Zaitsev usually is. It seems that the forwards get a lot more clear-cut chances when Zaitsev is on the ice, but nothing really else.

Hopefully, this can change with a few minor tweaks to the Leafs’ system. More shooting from the backend will help but considering that they just upgraded their forward group, that won’t be realistic.

With this increased focus on the forwards, perhaps Zaitsev will be able to upgrade his passing game and set up the offense from the backend more often than he did last season. He was successful enough in doing that two years ago, but last year saw a dip in his raw points dramatically.

In 2016-17, Zaitsev saw a total of 164 minutes on the powerplay. Last year, he only saw 14 minutes on the man advantage. That is primarily why his points dropped so dramatically, all the way from 0.43 Pts/GP to 0.21 Pts/GP – almost cut in half.

This upcoming season, Zaitsev should (but might not) see more time on the powerplay. To have Gardiner and Rielly running it is great, but a right-shot quarterback might change how the opposing team approaches their penalty kill. Trying it won’t hurt you, Mike.

Speaking of special times, Zaitsev was on the ice for 45.2% of the time the Leafs were killing penalties themselves. He was one of their go-to defencemen for that situation and I do not see that changing in the near future.

If Zaitsev can find a balance between his rookie and sophomore years in this league, there can be potential for him to be somewhat worth his contract. He is certainly talented at some things and is an NHL defenceman without any doubt. He is the prime candidate on this Leafs team for a bounce-back year, bigger than anyone else.

If he is going to be playing over 22 minutes a night, let’s hope that he can bring that balanced game to the table like he has shown in the past.

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