Nikita Zaitsev Plans To Sign With The Toronto Maple Leafs For Next Season
The young Russian defencemen plans to make his way to North America and it looks like he plans on moving to the blue and white next season
By: David Morassutti
After months of speculation it looks like the Toronto Maple Leafs are closer to signing Russian defenceman Nikita Zaitsev to a one-year entry level deal.
Zaitsev has spent the past seven years in the Kontinental Hockey League. He possesses strong playmaking ability, smooth skating and can unload a strong shot from the point. At 6’2″, 192 pounds he is still filing an already large frame but he should be able to make the move to the NHL next season. It also helps that he is a right-handed shot defenceman especially because the Leafs are loaded with left-handed shot defencemen.
There were a lot of teams interested in Zaitsev which makes this signing a big win for the Leafs and it looks like a visit to Toronto last season gave them a big advantage.
CSKA Moscow, his current KHL club is one of the league’s top teams with former NHLer Alexander Radulov as their leading goal scorer. Zaitsev also played with both Vladimir Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera who are currently with the St. Louis Blues. Zaitsev was named as a KHL All-Star and now it looks like he wants to take the next step in his career with a move to the NHL. Zaitsev has had some memorable moments playing with the Russian team at the World Juniors and World Championship. The Russian World Junior team in 2011 came back from a 3-0 deficit in the third period against Team Canada in the gold medal game and won 5-3.
The obvious benefit that the Leafs get by signing Zaitsev is that they get him without drafting him or trading for him much like signing a NCAA player. There is the possibility of him playing the AHL next season but given the state of the Leafs defence there is a good chance for him to make the Leafs out of training camp. His ability to produce on the powerplay is something the Leafs have struggled with this season and it will be interesting to see if he can replicate that at the NHL level. In the KHL he usually prefers to take the pass first option but he will probably be asked to take more shots from the point but that ability to make a good breakout pass could be an added bonus in generating offence.
The Leafs do have promising prospects on defence but Zaitsev would move up on the prospect depth chart especially on defence. The amount skill that the Leafs hope to put on the blueline in the next few years will be important for the Leafs to build a competitive team to play against and it could lead to having more tradeable assets. Once the team can get the right mix of young talent on the blueline then they can add the veteran players necessary for a deep playoff run. In today’s NHL adding more skilled young talent to a team can go a long way in building a legitimate contender and it is clear that Brendan Shanahan wants to make this a major part of the Leafs identity through this rebuild.
While there are no guarantees that the Leafs have a legitimate top four defenceman in Zaitsev, any role that he can produce at the NHL level would be a bonus especially because it has the potential to be a low risk, high reward signing; something the Leafs have not done enough of with past regimes. Below is a video of some highlights of Zaitsev from the KHL just to give you an idea of what the Leafs are getting.