If you haven’t already read it, Draglikepull wrote an excellent article where he statistically breaks down Nikita Zaitsev’s game and explains his concerns with the contract extension. This deal been a pretty controversial topic in Leafs land lately. There’s been some great debate in the blogosphere outlining the pros and cons of locking up Zaitsev long term. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the 7-year term, but I wanted to take this opportunity to explain why I think Zaitsev is a very effective NHL player. Consider this my “rebuttal” to Draglikepull’s piece.
Before I get into some of my key points, I want to acknowledge that everything Draglikepull has written about Zaitsev is objectively true. His zone exit & entry numbers are less than ideal; he hasn’t performed as well against top competition as Gardiner; he hasn’t generated too many shot assists this season, and he’s piled up a lot of Secondary Assists. These are facts, and I’m not going to dismiss them as #FakeNews.
Quality of Competition
The crux of my argument is based on the greyest of grey areas in hockey analytics these days: Quality of Competition (QoC). Frankly, this area of research is a bit of a mess, which I’ve written about before. The biggest problem is that most QoC measures are significantly flawed. For example, you can’t just sort players by CF% and say it’s a list of the best players of the league. This logic holds true for any stat, including xGF%, GF%, and TOI (although Dom Luszczyszyn used Points in an article last year, which I found interesting).
My personal favourite measures of QoC are Dellow’s star percentage and WoodMoney. These metrics try to determine how often players face “elite” competition. Stats nerds like myself will point out binning issues when you break things down into smaller samples like this (which I agree with), but I think that these measures do a great job of showing what matchups coaches are trying to give their players. Consider them great proxies for the great mystery that is QoC.
So let’s take a look at how Zaitsev was used this season:
Had a couple requests for Zaitsev's numbers vs WoodMoney Elite Forwards. DFF=xGF%. Heavy use vs Elite F. 43% among the most in NHL. pic.twitter.com/bwGCjqcvJ3
— Woodguy (@Woodguy55) May 2, 2017
Clearly, Zaitsev had some tough minutes this year, and he played most of them with Rielly, who’s notorious for his defensive struggles. Although Zaitsev was on the ice for a lot of scoring opportunities against (xGA/60), it’s difficult to know how much to blame him considering he faced extremely tough competition, as well as the fact that he played the majority of his minutes with a defenseman who consistently gives up a ton of chances.
Goals Above Replacement (GAR)
This is where DTM About Heart’s GAR data can help us. I’ve written about this metric before, but if you want the short version here it is. Using fancy machine learning techniques and regressions (which you can read about here), his model recognizes which 10 skaters are on the ice, and how much of an impact they have on play based on their prior results. I personally believe that this is currently the best way of accounting for both competition and linemate quality. It’s tricky when you have players with small samples (ie. Zaitsev, who’s only played one NHL season), but I’d still argue that it’s the best tool we have right now for making these adjustments.
So what do Goals Above Replacement say about Zaitsev?
Based on the GAR data, Zaitsev was the Leafs’ second most effective defenseman this year. After Gardiner, he was the best at driving play 5v5, his penalty differential was solid, and although he wasn’t dominant at 5v4, he was a helpful piece on one of the league’s best PP units. All in all, Zaitsev had the 62nd highest GAR among NHL defensemen, making him a high-end #3D according to the metric.
Now, I think it’s important to take this data with a grain of salt, especially considering that we don’t have any prior data on Zaitsev at the NHL level. It’s possible that the regression model may be giving him too much credit for his offensive play-driving ability, and not assigning enough credit for his defensive struggles. However, it’s also possible that the model is accurately accounting for his extreme usage and giving him a huge bump due to his insane quality of competition. Personally, I feel that the GAR data is slightly overrating him. Based on my observations this season, I would have him ranked as the Leafs’ third best defenseman, falling just behind Rielly (I’d argue that Gardiner was Toronto’s best defenseman by far, but that’s another conversation for another day).
Although there’s been some concern about his point totals, I think that Zaitsev’s offensive production is actually repeatable to a certain extent. One of Draglikepull’s biggest criticisms of Zaitsev was that his offence was largely a result of his Secondary Assists, particularly the ones that he put up on the power play. Secondary Assists are weird because we know that they don’t have much repeatability for forwards at even strength (which is, in part, due to scorekeeping issues). When it comes to defensemen though, I would argue that they’re much more repeatable. Using machine learning techniques, here’s a breakdown of how important DTM About Heart found each box score stat is at impacting future goals:
If you find these graphs confusing, don’t worry I did too (it took me a long time to finally get any meaning out of them). What I want you to focus on are Primary Assists (A1/60) and Secondary Assists (A2/60) at both even-strength and on the powerplay. While Secondary Assists aren’t that valuable for forwards at even strength, it appears that they have significantly more value for defensemen. What’s even more intriguing is that the model actually sees Secondary Assists as more important for a defenseman than Primary Assists, which I found very surprising.
With this in mind, I would make the argument that Zaitsev’s Secondary Assists aren’t necessarily a product of luck, but reflect some semblance of skill. On a power play unit quarterbacked by Marner (or Nylander), I think it’s reasonable to predict that he can produce around the same rate that he did this season (3.41 Points per 60 at 5v4, which was 46th among NHL defensemen). When it comes to his even strength play, I’m not saying that I expect him to have more Secondary Assists than Rielly (which he did this year), but I think it’s perfectly reasonable to project him as the Leafs’ third best playmaking defenseman behind Gardiner and Rielly.
My reasoning is based on his numbers in Ryan Stimson’s passing data. Using this data (shot assists, passes into the danger zone, passes that go from one side of the ice to the other), Ryan’s come up with an “Expected Primary Assists per 60” stat that’s actually a better predictor of future Primary Assists than previous Primary Assists. You can read all about it here, which I highly encourage.
Now let’s take a look at the Leafs defensemen’s Expected Primary Assists per 60 (xA1/60) at even strength this season:
Much like the rest of my arguments, I don’t think Zaitsev is anywhere near as great as Gardiner, and not quite as good Rielly, but his passing numbers indicate that he’s creating offense at the level of a #3 defenseman in the NHL.
Another fun fact about Zaitsev is that the team was actually quite snakebitten when he was on the ice. Based on their shot locations, we would expect the Leafs to score on 6.22% of their Unblocked Shots (Fenwick), but when Zaitsev was on the ice, they only scored on 5.44% of them. This 0.78% difference may seem small, but when you do the math, you realize that they should’ve scored about 8 more goals when he was on the ice. How many of those would he have been involved with? Well, he was involved with about 33% of Toronto’s goals at even strength, so that’s about 2 or 3 points that he should’ve added to this season’s total.
I’d consider that expected boost a wash with the expected decline in his 5v5 Secondary Assists (he had 8 this season, while Riely had 5 & Gardiner had 9). What I mean by this is, although we wouldn’t expect him to have as many Secondary Assists as he did at 5v5 last year, I think the team’s shooting luck regressing back to the mean when he’s on the ice will help compensate for it. We also know based on DTM About Heart’s Expected Goals data that he should’ve scored 1 more even strength goal this year based on his shot locations.
Leafs' goals vs xG.
Matthews, JVR, and Kadri have scored more than xG suggest but only by a couple of goals each. The offense is real. pic.twitter.com/LVpoZMAFpV
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) April 1, 2017
This isn’t to say that Zaitsev’s an offensive juggernaut who was snakebitten this year. I’m just trying to make the argument that his offensive production wasn’t necessarily a fluke this year, and if given the same PP time next season (on a unit with either Marner or Nylander), I would expect him to produce points at a similar rate based on the numbers we’ve touched on. I’d also imagine he’ll score more than 0 PP goals next year considering the bomb of a shot we saw in his KHL highlights. Will he hit the 40-point mark next year? Probably not, but I’d argue that he’s very capable of repeating a 35+ point season if he stays healthy.
Zaitsev’s a unique case, which makes him so tricky to evaluate. On the one hand, he’s playing his first year on North American ice and is still adapting to the NHL after spending his entire life playing hockey in Russia. We see so much natural talent when we watch him play, so many get the feeling that he’s bound to improve next season. Although defensemen tend to peak around age 24, it’s worth noting that this is a trend, and I would argue that he’s more likely to peak closer to age 25 or 26 considering his special circumstances. On the other hand, we have evidence of him struggling to break out of his zone and defend against opposing zone entries at the NHL level, which are very important aspects of driving results as a defenseman. Are there QoC factors that play into this? Absolutely, and considering how insane his matchups were this year, it’s difficult to know how much of an impact his QoC has on these results.
You also have the rare contract situation of a player one year away from UFA who can use KHL offers as leverage in contract negotiations. For example, if Zaitsev didn’t get an offer that he liked from Toronto this offseason, he could easily go to the KHL for a year or two and come back to the NHL as a UFA. So despite only playing one NHL season, this isn’t your typical “rookie”, and it definitely isn’t your typical RFA. So how much do you pay that player? Well since Zaitsev’s situation makes him a “pseudo-UFA”, we can use Matt Cane’s UFA projection model to predict how much NHL teams would have been willing to pay for him on the open market:
I used Matt Cane's salary projection formula (designed for UFAs) to project Zaitsev's salary. Here's what it generated. pic.twitter.com/OF3flYp6Gz
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) May 4, 2017
Based on his age, point production, and PK usage, the model projects him to be worth an AAV of about $4.7 million on the open market. Considering the Leafs have him locked up for $4.5 million moving forward, that’s not a bad number at all based on recent comparables. I used to make the argument that the Leafs didn’t have to re-sign Zaitsev and could have called his KHL bluff, but then I started to look into the alternatives. The list of NHL calibre RHD under the age of 30 available as UFAs this summer is pretty bleak:
Only 54 of them played 1000+ mins of TOI. Of those 54… only 4 are UFA:
— Stephen Burtch (@SteveBurtch) May 4, 2017
like… you rapidly descend from "NHL caliber" to NHL-AHL tweener, when looking at the RHD depth chart around the NHL.
— Stephen Burtch (@SteveBurtch) May 4, 2017
In a sense, Toronto almost had to re-sign Nikita Zaitsev, so it’s understandable how his agent was able to use this leverage to negotiate a contract that most of us can agree is a pretty favourable one for his client. Although the Leafs can explore trade options this offseason (with names like Manson, Tanev, Dumba, and Pysyk potentially available), it’s tough to imagine them improving their defense on the right side next season by letting Zaitsev walk. He’s not easily replaced, and you’d likely have to give up significant assets to acquire a player of similar value. For these reasons, I’m beginning to come around on the contract, especially the AAV.
Now, the biggest concern most people have with the contract is the term. I genuinely like Zaitsev as a player (if you couldn’t tell from the previous 2,000 words), but I always worry about signing players who aren’t a part of your “core” to long-term deals that take them into their 30s. I understand that Zaitsev’s in a unique situation that may allow him to peak as a 26-year-old (maybe even 27 or 28), but based on the research, I’m not sure how likely that is. Realistically, I would wager that this upcoming season will probably be his best year (after fully adapting to the NHL), with his decline beginning shortly afterwards. With that being said, sometimes nerds like me tend to exaggerate the extent of a player’s decline into their late 20s & early 30s:
What an ageing graph looks like vs what people think it looks like. pic.twitter.com/5OzXpAJAcX
— Katya Knappe (@KatyaKnappe) May 2, 2017
Is he going to regress throughout the course of this deal? Based on the evidence, yes. Is he going to be completely unusable in years 5, 6, and 7, to the point that the Leafs will have to send him down to the AHL and pray that he hops on the next flight to Russia? No, probably not. In all likelihood, what we’re looking at is a contract that actually looks pretty good for most of its duration, and will look slightly worse towards the end.
I don’t think Zaitsev is better than Gardiner or Rielly. I don’t even think he’s a top pairing defenseman. What I do think is that he’s an effective #3 defenseman who played against ridiculous competition this year. Predictably, his shot metrics didn’t turn out too well, but when you look at his results with a measure that tries to account for his absurd competition (GAR), he comes out looking like a very solid #3D. His point production was great this season, and I would argue that he’s capable of repeating it next season given his passing metrics, PP ability, and natural scoring talent.
Unfortunately, points are always something that you have to pay for on the open market, so he’s not exactly the bargain that Gardiner was on his last contract. Considering the KHL leverage situation that we touched on earlier, I think it’s fairer to consider Zaitsev a UFA (or “pseudo-UFA”) when evaluating this deal. Like any UFA contract, you were never going to get an absolute steal in terms of value (Anton Stralman notwithstanding). What the Leafs ended up with is a contract that’s going to pay Zaitsev market value for the next 4-6 years, and after that we’ll have to wait and see. Personally, I’m still not the biggest fan of the risk associated with a 7-year contract, but this deal isn’t anywhere near the catastrophe that I thought it was when I emotionally reacted to it on twitter a few days ago.
I won’t go as far as to say that I like the contract, but after digging deeper into things, I think it’s a perfectly reasonable deal considering the circumstances. What I will say is that I really like Zaitsev as a player. I would make the argument that he’s a legitimate #3 defenseman in the NHL based on his point production and play-driving ability (after accounting for his extreme QoC). He’s a player who can put up points, provide value on the PP & PK, drive penalty differential, and drive goal differential when he’s not given absurd usage. If the Leafs can acquire a top pairing RHD this offseason, it will allow them to move Zaitsev into a more suitable 2nd pairing role, where I believe he’ll be able to thrive moving forward.