What more can we say about Nikita Zaitsev that hasn’t been said repeatedly on this site throughout the year? He’s been underwhelming. He’s not a top four defenseman. He’s overpaid. He’s probably not going anywhere unless the Leafs get a little creative and they probably should.
It was the third year of the Nikita Zaitsev era, and once again Zaitsev enjoyed a guaranteed spot in the top four solely on the basis of shooting right. Well, that’s only partially true. The Leafs defense really wasn’t that great until Muzzin showed up, and you could make a case for him being the best defenseman behind Rielly, Gardiner, and Dermott, although beating out Hainsey and Ozhiganov for the distinction doesn’t warrant a passing grade.
It was another year of failed stretch passes and declining offense for Zaitsev that didn’t endear him to anyone who wasn’t focused entirely on his xGA/60 Rel TM. Of course, that might be a little too harsh on Nikita. For all of his faults, he was one of the better Leafs defensemen playing down low in his zone, and when given a tough assignment against Boston, he handled the task admirably, at least for the early part of the series.
It might also be too easy to criticize Nikita Zaitsev for his involvement in the Leafs penalty kill, which by its nature is a pretty thankless task. Zaitsev seeing Muzzin and Gardiner swapped out for Ron Hainsey is an unfortunate downgrade that yielded unfortunate results, and perhaps Zaitsev is a solid fit in a complimentary role.
Stats and Charts
So when it comes to primary points I guess we shouldn’t be counting on much from Zaitsev. This was certainly a chance from the previous season when Zaitsev more often than not had the primary assist and seldom put up a secondary one. This year he was limited to just one primary assist, which given his usage isn’t going to be a make or break thing for how we judge Zaitsev, but given that his offensive abilities demonstrated in his rookie season were the case for giving him the contract, it’s a shame that the offense is almost completely gone.
I can’t say enough about how encouraging the strong high danger numbers are encouraging about Zaitsev though. If this is a sign that Zaitsev has been remade as a shutdown defender, perhaps there is a way of coaching better overall results into his game.
I think I’m going to dedicate a good portion of the rest of my life trying to figure out why it was thought to be a good idea to have Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev kill penalties together and be on the ice together protecting one goal leads.
A few other takeaways worth making are that we will absolutely be living in a Muzzin and Zaitsev pairing world if Zaitsev returns as a Leaf next season, and we should probably be okay with that. And I should also realize that most of the anger I was directing at Zaitsev last season would have been better spent complaining about Ron Hainsey.
I’m not ready to completely admit that Zaitsev wasn’t bad, but I am willing to acknowledge I would have given more of a pass if I didn’t hate his contract.
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.
It’s safe to say that Zaitsev bounced back in some areas, but probably not as much as we demanded.
Admittedly I was prepared to give Zaitsev a D on the season, but through the process of revisiting his numbers I no longer think that is fair and I think his playoff performance should give us some hope that he can be more than was.
By the eye test we’re only going to recall a whole lot of failed stretch passes and clearing attempts, but in reality Zaitsev did a lot of defensive zone heavy lifting before Jake Muzzin arrived, and if they get some time to work together they could be a solid pairing with a lot of defensive zone starts.
Nikita Zaitsev isn’t to blame for how Mike Babcock used him, and you can’t fault him for getting paid as much as possible. If you are judging Zaitsev purely off of his performance, he’s a C- defenseman. If Nikita Zaitsev was a third pairing defenseman or was used in occasionally less difficult situations, he’d probably be a C+ or better defenseman.
Unfortunately there isn’t a way of separating the player from the contract and the reality is that Zaitsev’s contract makes him a player we should want on the Leafs next season. There is the matter of how we might not have much of a choice on that. A few months back I explored the trade options on Zaitsev, and while there might be some interest in him on July 1st after his bonus is paid, it’s hard to imagine a trade being completed easily.
For now the best course of action may be to embrace some optimism about the Muzzin-Zaitsev pairing. It has worked at times, and potentially with a defensively minded partner, Zaitsev could look to add some offense back into his repertoire. We are allowed to dream.
No stats were harmed in the making of this post. Those stats however were sourced from Natural Stat Trick.