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I think I like Nikita Zaitsev* (*so far in this series)

I think this site has more than enough content on it speaking ill of Nikita Zaitsev that we probably owe the guy a post talking about the things he seems to be doing well. That thing is doing well just so happens to be holding his own against the best line in hockey.

That’s pretty darn good and dare I say the best that any of us could ever hope for. What’s pretty interesting is that when Zaitsev has been away from that line, he’s gone back to regular Zaitsev.

Zaitsev CF% Away
David Pastrnak 39.02
Charlie McAvoy 45.24
Brad Marchand 40.48
Patrice Bergeron 39.53
Zdeno Chara 36.36

Wait, that might be worse than regular Zaitsev and we should have concerns about Zaitsev having a 26.67 CF% against Krejci and a 27.27% CF% against DeBrusk, but dammit, we’re giving Zaitsev his moment, at 5 on 5 he’s been fantastic against his assignment. Of course, we’ll have to also consider who is on the ice with him…

With TOI With TOI Away CF% With Zaitsev CF% Without Off. Zone Start %
Jake Muzzin 41.30 5.48 46.38 55.56 33.33
John Tavares 26.48 20.30 58.70 36.59 30.77
Zach Hyman 26.47 20.32 53.19 42.50 30.77
Mitchell Marner 25.85 20.93 55.56 40.48 30.77

Still, it doesn’t matter that Zaitsev has an outstanding supporting cast, he is going up against one of the top lines in hockey and coming out smelling like roses. He’s doing fantastic. What’s also interesting to see is how the Tavares line has struggled away from the Muzzin and Zaitsev pairing. Tavares sees his CF% drop to 29.5% away from Zaitsev, which speaks to the reliance all five of the players see in being a unit, and the advantage the Leafs have at home when it comes to line matching.

One of the things I admit to appreciating the most about Zaitsev is the fact that he seems to be an ideal matchup for Brad Marchand. Zaitsev seems to have Marchand figured out, and it seems that the language barrier is helping with dealing with Marchand’s potty mouth. Having a defenseman who isn’t easily provoked by Marchand is probably a strategy that other teams should look at mirroring.

So why all of a sudden is it easy to sing the praises of Nikita Zaitsev, well, we can assume that there are advantages to drawing the same assignment on a consistent basis and that Zaitsev has perhaps taken advantage of the surplus of video available on this line playing together. There’s also the added advantage of the fact that the Bruins are unlikely to break up this line anytime in the future and that should work to the Leafs advantage going forward.

There’s also the fact that Zaitsev has spent the last quarter of the season playing with Muzzin and that familiarity is finally paying off. The numbers certainly didn’t support this pairing staying together but night after night Mike Babcock kept them together, and either they’ve finally clicked at the right time, or he knew that this pairing would prove beneficial in playoff matchups, particularly against Boston. The Leafs have few defensemen that are more defensively minded, and only one right shooting defenseman, the fact that Muzzin and Zaitsev are paired together and drawing the toughest competition is by design. It’s probably worth noting this five man unit did well in the regular season too…

TOI CF% GF% xGF% HDCF%
88.18 58.67 50.00 58.35 64.71

What does it all mean?

It means right now we’re looking at three games that have been a pretty encouraging stretch for a player that has been somewhat of a whipping boy. It means that with the right linemates you can get some good hockey out of Nikita Zaitsev. It probably means when all he has to do is tap the puck up to Marner instead of attempting a stretch pass you’ll curse at Nikita Zaitsev a hell of a lot less. Do not underestimate the Marner factor.

Zaitsev has proven himself to be a valuable support to this line and perhaps in some ways a lot of us have been too hard on him. In other ways he’s still a very frustrating player who still induces pain attacks when he moves the puck and can bring me to tears on the penalty kill, though I’m now willing to put more of that on Hainsey.

What this also hopefully means is that other teams are taking notice of Nikita Zaitsev and he might be a movable asset for the Leafs in the summer, because as much as he has shown that his abilities are beyond what we may have thought, his contract still prices him off the Leafs blueline next season.

No stats were harmed in the making of this post. Those stats however were sourced from Natural Stat Trick.