The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t really had
a legitimate all-star defenceman since Borje Salming back in the 1970s and 80s,
even though Tomas Kaberle came close to it just over a decade later. The future
looks a bit brighter though with American Jake Gardiner and Canadian Morgan
Rielly in the lineup, but the best prospect could be 24-year-old Nikita Zaitsev
of Moscow, Russia. Zaitsev ended months of rumours and speculation earlier this
year when he signed a one-year contract with the Maple Leafs after deciding to
leave CSKA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
The 6-foot-2-inch, 195-lb. right-handed
shooting defenceman has been playing top minutes for Russia in the current World
Cup of Hockey and impressing those who matter. Zaitsev’s big-league career
began in 2008/09 when he played for the second-division Soviet Wings men’s team
when he was just 17 and also earned a spot on his homeland’s squad at the Under-18
World Junior Championship in 2009. He racked up 18 points on six goals and 12
assists for the Wings that season in 31 games and served 24 minutes in
penalties while going minus-4. He also chipped in with a goal and four assists at
the World Junior Championships and was a plus-7 in seven contests.
The youngster was so impressive he was
selected fourth overall by Sibir Novosibirsk in the KHL Draft. He made his
debut for the team in 2009/10 and skated with the Russian Under-20 team at the
World Junior Championship. Zaitsev took
a while to learn the ropes and scored just seven points in his first three
seasons with Sibir. However, he was named to the squad that won a gold medal
World Junior Championship in 2011. Zaitsev ended up being ranked 43rd overall among
international players by the Central Scouting Bureau in 2011, but was somehow overlooked
in the NHL Draft.
His breakthrough season came in 2012/13
when debuting for the Russian national team and scoring seven goals and 11
assists for Sibir while playing an average of 24 minutes per game. He signed
with CSKA Moscow the next season as a free agent and averaged 23 minutes of ice
time per game. He then contributed 32 points in 57 games the next season and
was a plus-27 and added eight points in 16 playoff outings. Zaitsev was named
an alternative captain last next season and scored 26 points in 46 games and
was a plus-21 while adding 13 points in 20 postseason encounters.
There’s no doubt that Zaitsev has improved
each season and at the age of 24 has plenty of potential as well as seven years
of top-level experience under his belt. He’s a fine positional player who has
the talent to move the puck out of his own zone and contribute in both ends of
the ice. He’s rarely caught out of position, but will need to adapt to the
smaller ice surface in the NHL. If he lives up to his potential, Zaitsev may be
one of the finds of the 2016/17 NHL season and could very well end up on the
Leaf’s first defensive pairing with Rielly. Zaitsev is more or less fluent in
the English language and should adapt to the North American game quite quickly.
However, he needs to prove his worth right away since he’s got just one season
to earn a contract extension.
Labels: Ian Palmer