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Photo Credit: via @MapleLeafs https://twitter.com/MapleLeafs?ref_src=twsrcgoogletwcampserptwgrauthor

Igor Ozhiganov has been a pleasant surprise

Coming into the season, I was pretty skeptical that Igor Ozhiganov was going to be a better option on right side of the bottom pair than some of their in-house options.

My reasoning for it was that he didn’t seem to be an impact player in the KHL and he was even playing in a bottom pairing role there last year, scoring two goals and seven assists in 42 games. Compare that with Nikita Zaitsev’s years in the KHL and considering the fact that Ozhiganov was older by the time he came over than Zaitsev was when he did, I couldn’t help but feel skeptical of Ozhiganov.

 

 

Some of the difference is obviously due to usage, but generally my thought was “Zaitsev is bad and Ozhiganov looks like he might be a significant downgrade from him.” I’m likely much lower on Zaitsev than most, but either way Ozhiganov quickly made a positive impression on me in the preseason and I’ve been more and more impressed by his play as the sample size slowly increases. TLN alumni Ian Tulloch, now at the Athletic, covered Ozhiganov’s encouraging start even earlier than me.

#FancyStats

We’re still dealing with a minuscule amount of information, of course, but the data backs up the Eye Test™ early on.

 

Dermott and Ozhiganov have dominated the shot share at 5v5, especially while together.

 

The interesting thing here is that they’re not getting sheltered in terms of zone starts (Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey actually have the highest percentage of offensive zone starts), but they are in terms of quality of competition. Conventional wisdom would tell you that their numbers are likely inflated due to this, but research has shown quality of teammates actually has a bigger impact on performance than quality of competition. Taking that into consideration, both Ozhiganov and Dermott, while mostly facing bottom six players while playing with bottom six teammates, have actually spent slightly more time facing second lines than playing with anybody in their own top two lines.

So, while they’re getting sheltered in the sense that they’re still mostly playing against depth players, they’re not getting sheltered in terms of zone starts or in terms of getting time with their own top lines. Their usage likely hasn’t skewed their results too much just yet, but they’re obviously not going to continue owning 63.73% of the shot attempts on a team hovering around 48-49% without them on the ice. Things will level out as the sample increases, but they’ve clicked together early on which is very encouraging, especially considering Ozhiganov doesn’t really know how to speak english yet. The communication barrier hasn’t seemed to be a problem early on.

Transition Play

One of the things I noticed early on with Ozhiganov is that he can really move the puck, which I wasn’t expecting. He continually makes good decisions with the puck on his stick in his own zone and he is able to execute on a consistent basis.

This clip comes from Saturday’s game against the Blues, which I promise I will never speak of again. The Blues’ winger flips the puck into the neutral zone, where Dermott stands his ground and makes a deft little pass to Ozhiganov who has more space inside his own blueline to make a play. Ozhiganov curls toward the wall before hitting Josh Leivo tape to tape in stride in the middle of the ice for a partial break.

The next play comes from their win against the Kings last week. Dermott comes out from behind his net and moves it to Ozhiganov along the boards at the hashmarks. Ozhiganov already saw Andreas Johnsson cutting through the middle at the far blueline and he immediately hits him with a tape to tape pass. I am thankful for this camera angle.

Ozhiganov also seems to know when to be aggressive at both bluelines. Here he jumps up in the breakout to give Nazem Kadri a passing option, which he takes. Ozhiganov then carries it out and plays a give and go with Connor Brown at the offensive blueline before providing the zone entry. Unfortunately he bobbles the pass, but an effective play nonetheless.

This play is an example of what I mean when I say he’s aggressive at both bluelines and he seems to know exactly when he can be. He reads the play well here and sees that he can take away the Montreal forward’s options for a clean zone entry, so he steps up and forces the dump out, which Dermott is there to retrieve inside the Leaf zone. Dermott quickly sends it up to Kadri in the neutral zone, Kadri hits Tavares at the offensive blueline and Tavares has his first goal as a Leaf.

From that same first game of the year, Ozhiganov is under pressure from two Montreal forwards and he doesn’t seem to be worried at all. He swings around the net and when the second forward cuts off the boards, he quickly takes the option given to him by Kadri with a quick backhand pass and the Leafs are headed the other way. A small play that is easily missed watching the game live, but a really effective one in terms of moving the puck into the right end of the ice.

Another example of Ozhiganov’s willingness to pinch when he knows it’s a good play, this time it’s stepping up on his man at his own blueline. Dermott is right there in anticipation and he swoops in to take the puck out of the zone, but unfortunately he loses control of it.

This time it’s Dermott stepping up on his man at the redline before he can get control of the outlet pass, which results in the puck heading toward Ozhiganov. Ozhiganov quickly stops up and sees Tyler Ennis at the blueline and hits him with a pass right away.

Offensive zone instincts

The offensive zone isn’t where Ozhiganov tends to shine, but he has shown some flashes of his vision you see in his transition game. This play really stood out to me as he sells the shot from the boards and then hits Dermott who has snuck in behind the defence and is now all alone in front of the net. Unfortunately for them, the puck bounces over Dermott’s stick as he tries to shoot, but this was a really great display of offensive instincts by both defenders.

This last clip is pretty cool. Ozhiganov has pinched deep down the wall to keep the puck in the offensive zone and is tied up with Andre Burakovsky. Neither player has the use of their stick available, so Ozhiganov gets over top of the puck and hits Auston Matthews in the corner with a back foot pass through Burakovsky’s feet. So slick.

Ultimately, he’s only seven games into his NHL career, but the early results are very encouraging for Ozhiganov. I would be inclined to think a lot of that is a result of playing with Dermott, who I would argue is fully capable of playing higher in the lineup, but Ozhiganov seems to be a pretty capable player himself. He’s a crisp passer who seems to understand exactly when to step up at both bluelines, which helps him maximize his skillset. He kind’ve seems to be the anti-Zaitsev in that sense.

Though I was worried he might retire after this happened in game two…

*QoC/QoT charts via hockeyviz.com

*shot share viz via Sean Tierney’s tableau

*data via corsica.hockey

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  • magesticRAGE

    Great read. My eye test agrees. What a great pickup, for free too. I would love for him to fit Rielly (take over for Hainsey), but if himself and Dermott can move up in usage as a pair, even better. Maybe approaching the playoffs, they can be a shutdown pair, but I guess that’s a best case scenario.

  • Stan Smith

    Ozhiganov is still learning what to do without the puck in his own zone at times, which was obvious in the second period against the Blues, but I do believe he is a lot better than the other options the Leafs have for the third pair.