Nikita Zaitsev: Who IS This Kid?
With news surfacing via TSN’s NHL insider, Bob Mckenzie, this week that the Toronto Maple Leafs look to be a sure fire bet to land defenseman Nikita Zaitsev via free agency out of the KHL, interest in the Russian defenseman has been peaked.
A first round selection in the 2009 KHL junior draft, Zaitsev, 24, currently plays about 21:00 minutes a game with CSKA Moskva “A” of the KHL where he has put together a good season.
Through 46 games played, Zaitsev has registered eight goals and 18 assists for a total of 26 points to go along with 20 penalty minutes and a plus-21 rating. Zaitsev’s 26 points ranks him 15th among KHL defensemen.
At 6’2” and 205 pounds, Zaitsev has the size needed to be an NHL defenseman, but there are reports that suggest he could improve his physical play.
Eliteprospects.com describes Zaitsev as having a “smart two-way game, who is a fine passer and has a good shot from the point…”.
Here are some of his Pro’s and Con’s:
- Good/accurate shot
- Quick release
- High hockey IQ
- Good first pass
- Good defensive positioning
- Able to run a power play
- Capable of playing top-four minutes
- Decent size (6’2″, 205)
- Not overly physical
- Only adequate foot speed
- Average play without the puck
- Compete level will be tested at the NHL level
In terms of comparable defensemen, think Toronto’s own Jake Gardiner without the high-end skating speed, a Tomas Kaberle that shoots more regularly, a Cody Franson or even the emerging Frank Corrado.
All of these players are positionally sound, not overly physical, but are capable of rushing the puck through the neutral zone, making an accurate first pass out of the zone and are capable of bringing some offense to the table. All of them play an adequate defensive game, but can make gaffs at times (Gardiner, Franson, Corrado).
Given the number of reports coming out of Russia suggesting Zaitsev will sign with the Maple Leafs, it appears as if Zaitsev will be given every opportunity to crack the Maple Leafs top-two defensive pairings next season, likely slotting in along side Jake Gardiner or perhaps an unforeseen unrestricted free agent signing?
Clearly, while not an elite defenseman, with teams like the Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs all with interest in this young defenseman, it is clear that, in the minds of many, Zaitsev looks to be more than capable of cracking an NHL roster and playing top-four minutes (20 minutes a night).
Zaitsev could be an excellent signing for the Maple Leafs and, with a little work on his skating and decision making, he could develop into a very solid NHL defenseman.