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.