Today is the day. After months of intense speculation and over a year of negotiation-like chatter, Russian defenceman Nikita Zaitsev will end his contract with CSKA Moscow this evening and become free to negotiate with teams around the world without being chained down to a transfer agreement. With that said, there won’t be much negotiation.
From someone in the loop with the Nikita Zaitsev situation: He’s set on the Leafs. Talks with other teams are basically contingency plans.
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) November 13, 2015
As we were the first to fully commit to back in November, Zaitsev will be a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs next season. There’s been no pen put to paper just yet, but in the eyes of the player, this decision has been made for a very long time.
The Leafs were interested in signing the Moscow native back in June of 2015, but he still had a year remaining on his contract at the time. While some would treat this as a miss for Leafs management, but it turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise.
After all, they had done all the convincing that they needed to do. It was made clear that the Leafs were a young, rebuilding team that would climb the league ladder shortly after his arrival. It was a city that was familiar to him; minus having the big city vibe, he’s spent his last few summers training with Gary Roberts and has a ton of friends in town. Most importantly, there was a feeling of being wanted being projected towards him, something that he didn’t get at a draft-eligible age.
His agent still chatted with teams from time to time and didn’t close the door on CSKA, but that was all just in case the Leafs backed out. After all, Zaitsev had come off of a career year during their first talks, and if he was going to get the deal a year later, he’d have to prove it wasn’t a one off.
The good news? He did just that.
Defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, likely to sign with the Leafs, scored a wicked goal in the Gagarin Cup Final today: pic.twitter.com/uKGvXfLNXi
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) April 7, 2016
Without a shred of exaggeration, Zaitsev is the best combination of talent and age of any defenceman the KHL. Given that the league is the consensus number two in the world and that many of its players could easily drop into the NHL, that’s particularly impressive.
The eyes will tell you instantaneously that the youngster is an NHL-ready player. At 6’2 and a little under 200 pounds, he’s got a frame that can hold up to the rigors of the big leagues. He’s a crafty skater who has a small ice-capable first step, he can make outlet passes with ease, and has a howitzer from the point. The Leafs are surely salivating at the fact that he is a right-handed shot; something that the defensive group is short on right now.
The numbers back up the qualitative thoughts, though. In a league where teams dress eight defencemen, Zaitsev averaged over 20 minutes per game, the highest on CSKA Moscow and something that only 54 others did over a 20+ game stretch. In this group, only five were under 25; Zaitsev was one of them.
Of those five, Zaitsev is by far the most capable offensively. In 46 games, he put up 8 goals and 18 assists, good for 26 points and an average of 1.61 points per 60 minutes of ice time (all situations). That’s over double the second-best player in his age bracket, and good for 5th in the league. His shot rate (6.4 per 60) is in the top fifteen among these high-minute defencemen, and his hit and blocked shot rates show just enough frequency to show that he’s not shy to sacrifice, but not enough to believe that he’s chasing the puck around.
Zaitsev’s growth as a top-end, young defenceman in a veteran-dominated league has been a sight to behold. Starting off on a smaller club in HC Sibir Novosibirsk gave him a chance to ease himself into the spotlight, and since joining CSKA Moscow, he’s become the team most relied upon defenceman, leading the group in ice time, involving himself in special teams, and emerging as a team leader; he wore the A behind controversial superstar and team captain Alexander Radulov, and has even filled in as the C-holder in times where Radulov has been out of the lineup. Even though the team has known all season that he’s moving on, they’ve relied on him to anchor the team’s blue line.
This spring, he did that all the way until Game 7 of the Gagarin Cup Finals. Of all 20+ minute defencemen to play ten games during this postseason, Zaitsev was the most productive (1.73 points per 60 minutes, 13 points in 20 games), played the most shifts per game (33), had the fourth highest shot rate of the 15-player group, and came through in moments of need. He was easily CSKA’s best player in the final round, but even after his goal streak in games 1-3 tapered off, the fatigue of the rest of the team showed and they lost the season-deciding game to Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Make no mistake, though; he was CSKA’s MVP in the postseason and just behind Radulov as their most important player throughout the year.
Soon to be Leafs defensive prospect Nikita Zaitsev has scored in all 3 games in the KHL finals. Here’s today’s goal: pic.twitter.com/m4PwiqinVU
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) April 11, 2016
Ultimately, the Leafs are getting a player who’s NHL production and minutes played comparables in the past two years (using all situations points/60 adjusted with NHLe) include Aaron Ekblad, Brent Seabrook, Trevor Daley, Ryan Ellis, Niklas Kronwall, Anton Stralman, Cody Franson, Alex Pietrangelo, and Drew Doughty. That’s some pretty impressive company to be keeping; whether he has the possession game to match or the ability to translate is going to be the major question.
But there’s not a ton of risk in this situation. Zaitsev will be signing a 1-year entry level deal that will become RFA-protected if the Leafs wish at the end of the year, meaning he can be cut loose if need be, or held onto without concern of competition if he succeeds. In effect, the Leafs are getting a free weighted coin toss on a player who is highly likely to immediately jump into second or even first pairing minutes as a 24-year-old rookie. That’s an incredibly enticing proposition for a team looking for ways to find undervalued talent.
If the two sides are in a rush to get this deal done, you could see Zaitsev sign his contract as early as 5:00 PM today, or midnight of May 1st at the KHL offices in Moscow. The fact that he’s playing exhibition games in preparation for the World Championships will likely mean this takes a few days or even weeks to become official, but the possibility is there. If nothing else, securing Zaitsev and Auston Matthews on the same night would be a cornerstone moment in the rebuild process.