With the off-season halfway through and not much more remaining between now and the regular season, it’s easy to guess the majority of players filling in the Toronto Maple Leafs roster on opening night. Leafs fans eagerly anticipate the probable debuts of Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews to give their top six an added boost. Meanwhile, a cloud of skepticism hovers over netmindr Frederik Andersen after his pricey acquisition.
However, the biggest question mark heading into the 2016-17 season is Toronto’s blue line. Last year, the Leafs defense was imperfect, but wasn’t abysmal at the same token. Next year, Toronto’s defensive depth will look similar to the previous season’s with exception of Nikita Zaitsev, a 24-year-old blueliner who blossomed in the KHL over the last couple of years. Without much certainty on how he’ll pan out, the Maple Leafs need Zaitsev to be a difference maker.
Toronto Maple Leafs Need Nikita Zaitsev to be a Difference Maker
Open Spot in Top Four
There are pros and cons to the Leafs defense. First of all, they performed above expectations last year from a possession standpoint by providing their team with an adjusted Corsi for percentage of 50.23% at even strength, good enough for 15th in the league. Not an impressive showing regarding puck control, but respectable to say the least considering where they finished in the standings.
Controlling the play is crucial when it comes to sustained success. Having a blueline capable of holding its own is obviously a positive. Unfortunately, poor goaltending and production ruined Toronto’s chance at finishing better than 30th, but that’s neither here nor there.
Assuming Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Martin Marincin, Matt Hunwick, and Roman Polak receive the majority of the defense’s ice time, Zaitsev in a top four role could provide immediate help to Toronto’s back end.
Gardiner was perhaps Toronto’s best defenseman last year, as his team generated more shot attempts and suppressed more shot attempts while he was on the ice. His ability to win loose puck battles and patiently control the puck makes him Toronto’s most effective defenseman right now.
Rielly is slowly making his case as a future top pairing defenseman with his point totals rising each year. If the 22-year-old improves on his defensive awareness (and isn’t playing with Hunwick), he could become a key figure in Toronto’s future.
Meanwhile, Marincin’s impact comes in his own zone with how he uses his stick to prevent the other team’s zone entries. His stick work has resulted in him posting the second best relative CF% on the team last year, behind Gardiner.
Bottom Pairing Struggles
Then there’s Hunwick and Polak, who are, at best, bottom pairing caliber defensemen. Both players lack offensive upside to their game and are below average defenders. There were many instances last year where Hunwick was caught pinching which lead to Reilly defending too many odd-man rushes. His aggressiveness resulted in a plethora of scoring chances allowed by Toronto.
Polak was just too slow and was constantly beaten off the rush by his opponents. What he has in strength he lacks in speed. Hunwick and Polak both negatively impacted Toronto’s possession and were the worst on the team in the same aspect.
Simply put, Toronto’s defense has positives and negatives to their game. With little footage or data of Zaitsev, it’s difficult to predict how well he’ll perform next year. According to Elite Prospects, he is intelligent on both ends of the rink and has the attributes of a puck moving defenseman in his passing ability and shot. His 6’2” and 196 pound frame is more than enough to ask for from a defenseman of his age.
Last season for CSKA (Moscow), Zaitsev lead his team’s defensemen in scoring during the regular season and lead the league’s defensemen in playoff scoring as well. His accolades include representing team Russia atthe Under-18 and Under-20 World Juniors and the 2016 World Championships. He was also named to Russia’s World Cup team. Zaitsev was a KHL All-Star in back-to-back years and was also one of the top two defensemen at the 2016 IIHF World Championship.
Zaitsev already has a resume that teams find appealing in a player. His success in international and KHL hockey gives Leafs fans hope that he will live up to the expectations. With that being said, transitioning to the NHL is never an easy task. Some players succeed and others fail. If he can come and play to the ability of a typical top four defenseman, there’s no reason to be disappointed.
The Leafs want to take a step towards improvement next season, and Zaitsev could be the difference maker they need.
*Data courtesy of corsica.hockey and eliteprospects.com*