The Toronto Maple Leafs announced Tuesday that they had signed Nikita Zaitsev to a 7-year contract extension with a salary cap hit of $4.5 million per season, as Bob McKenzie had been reporting would happen since before the playoffs started. In his rookie campaign in Toronto Zaitsev clearly earned coach Mike Babcock’s trust, playing 22:01 per night, essentially tied with Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner for the team lead in average ice time. Babcock had Zaitsev playing against top competition night in and night out, and the Leafs decided to reward the Russian rookie for his performance.
Opinions on the signing seem to be somewhat divided, but I think among Leafs fans they tend to lean towards thinking it’s a good deal. I’ve strongly disagreed with that stance, and in this article, I’m going to outline why. The main argument against the deal seems to be that the Leafs are taking a lot of risk with the length of the contract – even if Zaitsev is good now, we have no idea how good he’ll be in the long run, and he’s already right around the average age of peak performance, so he’s unlikely to get much better.
But I think even that line of thinking is wrong. Even if we look at right now, Zaitsev simply doesn’t perform like the kind of player you want to think of as part of the core through what the Leafs likely see as their window to contend. A wide array of statistics paint Nikita Zaitsev as mediocre or worse, and I’m going to dig into many of those numbers here.
A significant portion of the results of a hockey game are determined not in the offensive or defensive zones, but in the neutral zone. Strong play at and between the blue lines correlates strongly to other statistics that matter, like shots and goals. So a good place to start with Zaitsev is by looking at how he performs in the neutral zone. I’m going to use data from Corey Sznajder‘s tracking project for this portion of the post. The full data set isn’t available publically, but you can get access to it by donating to Corey’s GoFundMe (which I recommend doing if you’re interested in this kind of thing).
NEUTRAL ZONE PERFORMANCE
Let’s start by taking a look at how well Zaitsev does at one of the most important things a defenceman is tasked with – preventing the other team from crossing Toronto’s blue line with the puck. (All numbers in this section are for 5v5 play only.)
Carry-in% is how often the puck was successfully skated into Toronto’s zone when a particular defenceman was targeted (lower is better). Break-up% is how often the defenceman broke the play up at the blue line (as opposed to letting the puck in, whether by a pass, dump-in, etc.).
There’s no other way to put it except to say that Zaitsev did the worst job on the Leafs in terms of defending the blue line, at least in the games that Corey has tracked. He rarely broke up entries and frequently allowed the puck to enter Toronto’s defensive zone under opposition control.
You may be surprised by how good Jake Gardiner’s results look, but you shouldn’t be. As I’ve argued on a number of occasions Jake Gardiner is really good defensively.
Let’s also take a look at how well Zaitsev does compared to his teammates in terms of getting the puck out of Toronto’s defensive zone.
Exit% is the ratio of a player’s puck touches in the defensive zone that are cleared into the neutral zone. Possession exit% is the frequency with which the Leafs maintain possession during those exits. Possession exit% (also known as “controlled exits”) is the more important of the two statistics since the ultimate goal is to get the puck up the ice to attack, not just to throw it back to the other team.
Zaitsev’s results again are not good. He has by far the lowest rate of overall exits. His rate of exits that lead to Toronto possessions is better, around the middle of the team, but still significantly behind the good passers on the team like Gardiner and Rielly. Zaitsev’s rate is more comparable to Matt Hunwick, and while I think Hunwick is a decent depth defender, no one would be happy to see him given a $30M+ contract.
It’s also worth noting that Zaitsev ices the puck significantly more than his teammates. Here are the number of icings each Leafs defenceman has been responsible for in the games that Corey has tracked:
Zaitsev ices the puck twice as often as Morgan Rielly, who was his primary defence partner for most of the season, and three times as often as Jake Gardiner, who played a similar number of minutes. The combination of Zaitsev’s zone exit and icing rates suggest a player who has difficulty transitioning from offence to defence. This is especially concerning given that his defensive results at the blue line were not good to begin with.
Once the puck gets into the neutral zone, the attacking team still has to get it across the other blue line before they can generate scoring opportunities. How does Zaitsev do in terms of getting the puck across the attacking blue line?
Here Zaitsev looks a bit better, although his closest comparable is still Matt Hunwick, and he still lags behind Gardiner and especially Rielly by a fairly wide margin (zone entries are one of the areas where Morgan Rielly really shines).
The sum total of Zaitsev’s neutral zone play is not impressive. His neutral zone numbers suggest a player who is a little less effective than Matt Hunwick.
While neutral zone play is important, it’s not the only thing that matters. Once the puck is in the offensive zone some players are better at turning plays into goals than others, whether through their passing or their own goal scoring ability. Let’s take a look at how each of the Leafs’ defencemen does in terms of taking shots (iS/60) and making passes to players who shoot the puck (SA/60, a.k.a. shot assists). These stats are per 60 minutes of 5v5 play and they come from the pass-tracking project led by Ryan Stimson.
Once again we see Morgan Rielly really shining at the offensive end of the ice, with Jake Gardiner’s passing also looking good. Zaitsev’s passing rate isn’t terrible, around the middle of the team, though his personal shot rate is very low. Despite the fact that Zaitsev scored the 2nd highest number of points among Leafs defencemen at 5v5 this season, we’re not seeing a lot of evidence in either the neutral zone or passing & shot stats that Zaitsev is actually creating a whole lot of offence himself. He largely seems to be the beneficiary of his teammates play.
EFFECT ON TEAM-MATES
One thing that can be helpful to look at to get a handle on how well a player plays relative to his team-mates is to look at the Corsi ratio that other players on the team put up while playing with that player and while playing with others. This is usually known as WOWYs (with or without yous). Here are Zaitsev’s WOWYs with all four left-shooting defencemen on the Leafs (he played very few minutes with right-shooting defencemen):
|Player||TOI w/ 22||CF% w/ 22||CF% w/o 22|
For some reason Martin Marincin and Nikita Zaitsev had great results together, but it was a small number of minutes and seems like it’s probably a fluke due to the sample size. The two players who Zaitsev spent almost all of his minutes with this season, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, both played far better when they were apart from him than when they played with him. Rielly sees a 2.8% boost to his Corsi when playing without Zaitsev and Gardiner sees a remarkable 5.4% boost when apart from #22.
The criticism that I know Zaitsev’s defenders will have of what I’m presenting in that chart above is that Zaitsev plays the toughest minutes on the team, so of course, players get a boost when they’re not with him. I do think that consistently facing difficult competition can drag down a player’s numbers, as I recently wrote when discussing Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly. But difficult competition is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for bad results. They can account for some decrease in a player’s performance, but at a certain point, the numbers are bad because a player just isn’t performing well.
And here’s one thing we can look at to see that difficult competition is not sufficient to explain Zaitsev’s numbers: partway through the season (March 14th, to be exact), Mike Babcock made a switch and started playing Jake Gardiner alongside Zaitsev in those difficult minutes, easing Morgan Rielly’s workload. Looking only from March 14th until the end of the season (ie. the period when Jake and Nikita played together), how do each player’s numbers look?
|Player||Player’s CF%||Zaitsev’s CF%|
When Gardiner got put in the tough minutes role with Zaitsev his numbers took a hit, but he still considerably outplayed Zaitsev, putting up a Corsi rate 4.3% higher, despite the fact that the two spent most of their ice time together! At the end of the day, Zaitsev has struggled in the role the Leafs are asking him to play, and other players (like Gardiner) have shown that they’re able to handle those minutes without such poor results.
BUT WHAT ABOUT SCORING
Zaitsev’s defensive results were not good, but his point total was still pretty impressive, right? 36 points as a rookie looks solid. But even there we find that the numbers aren’t as good as they might first appear.
Zaitsev scored 9 points at 5v4 this season, just 1 behind Jake Gardiner, which sounds good. But of those 9 points, none were goals and 8 were secondary assists. Primary assists are a result of repeatable talent, but secondary assists are almost entirely random. They have a minimal relationship to long-term output. So in 166 minutes of 5v4 play this season, Nikita Zaitsev had one primary point. So even though Zaitsev played a lot on the powerplay, he didn’t really create a lot of offence in those minutes.
If we include only primary points (ie. no secondary assists), Zaitsev’s scoring in all situations falls to 3rd on the Leafs defence, with his 17 points ranking behind Morgan Rielly’s 19 (with far less powerplay time), and Jake Gardiner’s 23. Being 3rd behind Gardiner and Rielly isn’t that bad (he’s well ahead of everyone else), but it is worth noting that Zaitsev’s point totals this year are inflated due to a high rate of secondary assists. When combining that with his mediocre shot and passing rates at 5v5, it’s fair to wonder if Zaitsev’s point totals moving forward might be lower than they were this season.
So what do we get when we put all the pieces together? Nikita Zaitsev scores a reasonable amount of points, but he doesn’t generate a lot of offence on his own. He struggles to keep the puck out of the Leafs defensive zone, and he struggles to get the puck back up ice once he recovers it. On the whole, the results are not good. The closest comparable on the team seems to be Matt Hunwick, a decent enough player, but not someone you want to think of as a core player. Zaitsev seems to drag down his teammates in terms of shot rate, and that remains true even after accounting for the fact that he plays against top competition. It’s likely that his results would improve if he was placed in an easier role, but I’m not sure how much improvement we might expect to see; as I’ve said, he seems to be like Matt Hunwick with a bit better offensive instincts.
If Zaitsev is already struggling now, at 25 years old, right around peak performance age for NHLers, I think the Leafs should be quite concerned about where his level of play will be at 3, 4, 5 years down the road. At the moment, Zaitsev is probably best suited to play as a second-pair defenceman, chipping in a bit of offence but not being asked to handle too much defensive responsibility. Given that that’s where he’s at right now, it seems likely the optimal role for him will be even less strenuous in the later years of this contract. There are no guarantees when it comes to ageing, but I think it’s more likely than not that the Leafs are going to wish they hadn’t signed this contract long before it’s over.