The emergence of Nikita Zaitsev

Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY SPORTS

This offseason, the Leafs signed Nikita Zaitsev, a KHL free agent that brought much anticipation. The Leafs were in desperate need for improvement on the right side of their defense, and Nikita Zaitsev’s play promised to bring that

There were some that were skeptical of just how much an impact he could have, including myself. After all, we’re still not totally sure how the KHL stacks up against the NHL, since that league is so volatile these days. Could Zaitsev really be a top 4 defenseman in his first NHL season?

He definitely can.


The Leafs’ newest defenseman has had his role steadily increased over the early part of the season. He started with Hunwick, moving to a pairing with Gardiner for a short time, before finally moving to the top pairing with Morgan Rielly. He also plays on the Leafs’ 2nd powerplay unit.

To scout Zaitsev’s game, it feels very calm and effective. He draws similarities to Jeff Petry in that regard, and early-career Stephane Robidas (without the physicality). And of course, the Leafs’ own poster boy for calm, effective defense: Jake Gardiner.

Player Rel.CF60 Rel.CA60 Rel.xGF60 Rel.xGA60 P60
NIKITA.ZAITSEV 0.42 -1.42 -0.29 0.2 0.95
CONNOR.CARRICK 2.98 -4.2 -0.06 -0.48 0.62
JAKE.GARDINER 7.53 -3 0.57 0.05 0.89
MARTIN.MARINCIN 0.67 -3.42 -0.04 -0.51 1.29
MATT.HUNWICK -14.03 5.62 -0.42 0.11 1.18
MORGAN.RIELLY 7.37 -0.11 0.18 0.09 1.05
ROMAN.POLAK -10.96 7.14 -0.15 0.36 0.55

The table above shows that Zaitsev’s shot generation numbers are average or not very good (he has a worse rel xGF60 than Polak!), but his shot prevention numbers are pretty good. Given that he is paired with Morgan Rielly, an elite shot generation player with poor shot prevention numbers, this seems like a match made in heaven.

Of 52 pairings that have played 300 minutes of ice time this season, Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev are 23rd in the NHL in Score-Zone-and-Venue-Adjusted CF%, so they’re about average. They’re also 19th in time-on-ice competition, and have the 43rd most difficult zone starts, neither of which would significantly influence their CF%. Their PDO is 99.52% so we can’t expect them to really regress in either direction. Altogether, it seems the pairing isn’t dominating, but they’re not getting killed either. For a couple of 23-year-olds on a top pairing, that isn’t so bad. 

I wanted to focus on the positive effect Zaitsev has been having on Morgan Rielly. The below images show Morgan Rielly’s CF% on a 15-game rolling average (in blue). The image is from Corsica (Rolling Average Tab), and the D-partners (in red) come from


This image shows that since the end of the 2014-15 season, Morgan Rielly has had a steadily increasing CF%. There are the bad stretches in 2015-16 where Rielly was playing with Hunwick and Marincin, and the really bad stretches in 2014-15 where he was playing with Polak, Eric Brewer and Stephane Robidas.

Specifically, it shows see the steady rise in 2016-17 so far, where Rielly has really progressed into a solid CF% player. I believe this is partly due to his growth as a defenseman on his own, but due to the influence of Nikita Zaitsev. 


It maybe isn’t the case that Zaitsev is a top-pairing defenseman in terms of his own ability. He certainly isn’t as good as Jake Gardiner right now. But he works well with Rielly and that’s very important if Rielly is going to continue as this team’s #1 defenseman. Unless the Leafs can go get Chris Tanev or someone on that level, Zaitsev is the best partner for Rielly that the Leafs have. It could be that those two are better suited for a 2nd pairing role, but one could say with certainty that they are really solid as a pairing.

Zaitsev himself needs to work on being more involved in the powerplay production, with only 2 points there, if he wants to maintain his role there. 

    • Greg Fenton

      I would say not today. But he certainly has the skill set and potential.

      Also, you don’t need that franchise level D-man to win a cup. Given the other talent on the team, Rielly maybe good enough to be the best D-man on a D-core good enough to win a cup.

      • LukeWarmWater

        In general though the vast majoriy of teams that have won the cup have had at least one dominant defenceman, in some cases as many as three as the Habs did with Robinson, Savard and LaPointe. The Islanders Potvin, The Oilers, Coffee, L.A. Doughtry, the Devils, Stevens and Niedemayer, Chicago Keith Brown. Your chances seem to be much better if you do have a real leader back at the blue line.

        • Greg Fenton

          You need dominant/franchise TALENT. Teams have done it without franchise forwards, teams have done it without franchise D-men. Its all about how the team is structured. If Matthews, Marner and Nylander can carry that load a strong 1-6 defense core without a stand out franchise/dominate leader can win.

  • Ben

    All hail Zaitsev! Nice to see the bandwagon getting fuller. I think he’s got more of an edge to his game than he’s getting credit for as well, certainly more than someone like Gardiner.

    Just one note, with a coach that loves match-ups and pairings like Babcock, it’s worth noting who these guys are playing with. Polak gets to play most often behind Matthews, Hyman, Marner and Nylander. On the other hand, Zaitsev plays more often behind Kadri, Komarov and Brown. That explains some of the xGF difference.

  • Tigon

    I would agree that the days of a Stevens/Niedermayer, Pronger/Niedermayer or Weber/Sutter combo isn’t necessary. A workhorse is great but you really need a compotent top 4 come playoffs to lean on and hopefully a 5-7 that can take a shift without burying the team, that may not move the needle but they have to at least hold off the other team.

    • Greg Fenton

      well you need that kind of combo if your #1 center is MacDonald or Gomez or Legwand.

      You need 2-3 workhorse’s to carry your team. If its a couple centers like the Penguins, you can get away a Letang level D-man (very good,but not on a Keith or Subban level) as your #1. You can get away with Gomez as your #1 center if you have Niedermayer/Stevens on your defense etc… And some teams have talent spread out like the Hawks.

  • Stan Smith

    I have been pleasantly surprised by Zaitsev. For a good portion of season he was their best all around dman. The difficult part now will be to get him re-signed. Luckily he will be an RFA and not a UFA following this season or it might have been costly. I still think he will be due for a significant raise.

  • Capt.jay

    It’s nice to have a franchise dman but in this day in age of the cap era, many have done it without. I think an overal steady defence by committee is the way to go as one guy can’t be on the ice all the time. In my opinion (and this is only an opinion) I think we are a good 4th and 5th Dman away from having a solid defense. Carrick is getting better and maybe he could be the 6th man. I think our forward line up is better than Chicago’s was at this time during their rebuild so it offsets their better defense.

  • Harte of a Lion

    I have been a huge supporter of Zaitsev for the past 3 plus years. If anyone remembers, I had hyped him as potentially the best RHD the Leafs would have once they signed him as early as the end of the 2014/15 season. As Leaf fans who have gotten used to every positive turning to shit?, I am glad that everyone is discovering what I was preaching at TLN, for a couple of years, Nikita Zaitsev is a very good defenceman.
    I hope he continues to progress without becoming the most dominant D on the team as a 5 year 22.5 million extension might have become 5-6 million per which would throw the cap situation into chaos.

  • Marty

    Great article, other than the Gardiner comparison. There is nothing calm and effective about Gardiner I’m not buying that his game has come around. Zaitsev has been great, very trustworthy for a rookie defenceman