Defenceman Nikita Zaitsev has one season to prove himself with Maple Leafs

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. 

Phil Kessel’s iron man streak in jeopardy

Many Maple Leafs’ supporters believe Phil Kessel was more or less run out of Toronto by the media and a pocket of fellow fans as he was made the scapegoat for the club’s ineptness. After spending six seasons in Canada’s biggest city, the right-winger had the last laugh though as he helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup in his very first season with the team. Kessel hit the 30-goal mark four times in Toronto and scored at least 20 goals in his other two campaigns there and missed just 12 contests in his half dozen seasons.
Every hockey fans knows the speedy Kessel is a fine goalscorer, an underrated playmaker, and possesses a lightning-quick shot, but many of them don’t realize just how durable and dependable he is. The native of Madison, Wisconsin, who beat testicular cancer earlier in his career, missed a dozen games due to injury during his first season in Toronto back in 2009/10. In fact, they were the first 12 contests of the campaign and he hasn’t missed an NHL game since. Kessel has now played 528 consecutive regular-season games, which ranks as the 17th-best iron man streak in league history. Former Montreal Canadien Doug Jarvis is the all-time NHL iron man with 964 straight games under his belt.
Kessel’s feat is quite an achievement and his 528 games is currently the fourth-longest active streak. Andrew Cogliano of the Anaheim Ducks leads in that department at the moment by playing in 704 consecutive outings. Playing in 500 consecutive games isn’t easy to do as just 23 players in NHL history have managed to do it. Former New York Ranger Murray Murdoch was the first to reach the milestone back in the 1936/37 season and he retired without ever missing a game during his NHL career. Glenn Hall played in 502 straight games and could very well be the only goaltender ever to hit the magic 500 number.
Kessel is just one of four active players who currently have iron man streaks of 500 games or more. He joins Cogliano, Keith Yandle of the Florida Panthers (551 games) and Patrick Marleau of the San Jose Sharks (542 games) in the fantastic four. Unfortunately for Kessel, he may not be able to extend his streak in the upcoming 2016/17 campaign as there’s a chance he’ll miss the start of it due to recent hand surgery in the offseason. The 28-year-old has played six consecutive seasons without missing a game, but a hand injury bothered him last year.
Kessel still managed to score 26 goals and 33 assists last year and then led the Penguins in the playoffs with 10 goals and 22 assists in 24 encounters. His playoff performance arguably deserved to be rewarded by the Conn Smythe Trophy, but his captain Sidney Crosby took it home as the postseason  MVP. Kessel enjoyed a productive season, but for some reason he was overlooked by the USA when the country named its squad for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey tournament. Perhaps they knew about his hand injury.

Either way, Kessel likely wouldn’t have been able to represent his homeland anyway since his hand hasn’t fully healed yet. Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford is obviously hoping Kessel will be in the lineup on opening night, but said he’s still not sure. However, he added that if Kessel isn’t ready for the start of the new season he shouldn’t be out for too long. Kessel took a bit of time to gel with his Penguin teammates as he had just 21 points in his first 37 appearances, but then racked up 15 goals and 23 assists in the final 45 games. With Kessel’s 528-game iron man streak on the line, the majority of fans are hoping the right-winger will be able to suit up on October 13th when the Penguins host the Washington Capitals in their season opener.

Pavel Datsyuk quickly adapting to life in the KHL

Russian hockey star Pavel Datsyuk thrilled Detroit Red Wings’ fans for 15 years from 2001 to 2016 when he deeply disappointed them by announcing he’d be heading back to his homeland to finish out his pro career. The 38-year-old centre still had a year to run on his multi-million dollar, long-term contract in Motown, but felt the time was right to return to Russia because of family reasons. Most fans were upset that they’d miss Datsyuk’s hair-raising skills, but some felt he betrayed the Red Wings franchise because it still had to carry his $7.5 million 2016/17 paycheque against the league salary cap. Luckily for the Wings, they were able to unload Datsyuk’s salary on the Arizona Coyotes via a draft-day trade.

With the sour taste of the contract situation being rectified, Red Wings and NHL fans in general will now be saddened at Datsyuk’s departure based on his hockey talent alone. He’s now skating for SKA St. Petersburg in the European-based Kontinental Hockey League and adapting to the new on-ice surroundings very quickly. After six games for St. Petersburg, Datsyuk has been in fine form with four goals and three assists. He’s on pace for at least a point per game this season after struggling somewhat in the NHL last campaign with 16 goals and 33 assists for 49 points in 66 outings.

Datsyuk has had injury problems to deal with over the past few years though and played in just 164 regular-season games for Detroit over the past three seasons. He’s no stranger to the KHL though as he racked up 36 points in 31 games in 2012/13 when the NHL campaign was shortened due to labour problems. St. Petersburg will have to do without Datsyuk’s services for the next few weeks though as he will be playing for Russia at the upcoming World Cup of Hockey tournament in Toronto. Russian fans shouldn’t be surprised that Datsyuk has adapted so quickly to the KHL game as he’d be an effective player in any league in the world.

The 5-foot-11-inch centre fell just short of the 1,000 game milestone in the NHL due to his recent injuries as he suited up for 953 regular-season contests and contributed 918 points on 314 goals and 604 assists. He also chipped in with 113 points in 157 playoff encounters and helped the Red Wings win Stanley Cups in 2001/02 and 2007/08. Datsyuk kicked off his pro career by playing five seasons in the Russian Hockey Super League (RSL) from 1996 to 2001. The youngster scored 102 points in 168 games in the RSL and the Red Wings obviously felt he had something to offer. However, they didn’t select him until they took a chance with the 171st overall pick in the 1998 NHL Draft.

Since making his NHL debut in 2001, Datsyuk has proven to be one of the most consistent, sportsmanlike, and exciting hockey players on the planet. He played in four Olympic Games and captained his teammates in 2014 when they were held in Sochi, Russia. He took home the Frank J. Selke Trophy three times as the top defensive forward in the NHL and won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy four straight years for sportsmanship and performance and sportsmanship. Datsyuk’s dazzling offensive game never suffered while he took care of duties in his own end of the ice and was seen as a complete 200-foot player.

Datsyuk also played in several International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships and won numerous individual NHL awards and honours during his career in North America. While Datsyuk has just left Detroit and the NHL, fans should take the opportunity to appreciate his skills during the World Cup of Hockey event while they can. This could be the very last time he plays in competitive games on North American soil before retiring.   

NHL 2016 offseason recap

Some interesting NHL activity has taken place since the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup back in June and in case you’ve been away on summer holidays here’s a recap of some of the more notable events and developments.

Out in Colorado, head coach and vice president of hockey operations Patrick Roy resigned from the club as he didn’t see eye to eye with his boss and former Hall of Fame teammate Joe Sakic. The Avalanche then hired 44-year-old Jared Bednar to replace Roy as head coach even though he has no prior NHL experience. Bednar played junior hockey with the Prince Albert Raiders and was the head coach of the American Hockey League’s Lake Erie Monsters last season, who just happened to win the Calder Cup. Also out west, the Winnipeg Jets named Blake Wheeler as their new captain and the Los Angeles Kings took the C off of Dustin Brown’s sweater and handed it to Anze Kopitar.

In New York, the Rangers received some good news when coveted free agent Jimmy Vesey chose to sign with the club after being courted by several teams throughout the summer. The 23-year-old Vesey, who played college hockey at Harvard in the U.S., was sought by his hometown Boston Bruins as well as the Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks. Vesey won the 2016 Hobey Baker Award as the top American college player last year. 

Many fans believed he would end up in Toronto as the Leafs already have his brother Nolan in the organization and his father Jim also works for the club as a scout. Vesey was originally drafted 66thoverall by the Nashville Predators in 2012, but couldn’t agree on a contract with the club. The Buffalo Sabres then traded for his negotiating rights earlier this year, but also failed to sign him.
In other free agent news, the most sought-after player this offseason was definitely Tampa Bay forward and captain Steven Stamkos. He was also linked to several teams, but ended up disappointing them all by re-signing a long-term deal with the Florida franchise. The next big-name player to hit the unrestricted free-agent market will be New York Islanders’ centre and captain John Tavares. 

However, the 25-year-old has already told the press that he wants to stay with the Islanders and hopes to sign a contract extension before his current deal runs out in two year’s time. Tavares said there’s no reason to leave and he believes his team has the talent to win a Stanley Cup in the near future.
There were a couple of high profile trades during the offseason with the Edmonton Oilers dealing 24-year-old forward Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for 23-year-old defenceman Adam Larsson. Hall, a former first-overall draft pick by Edmonton in 2010, said he will be changing his sweater number with the Devils to nine from four since number four has been retired by the franchise. In case you’re wondering, Hall of Fame defenceman Scott Stevens used to wear number four with New Jersey. Hall racked up 328 points in 381 games with the Oilers before being shipped out of town. Larsson was the fourth-overall pick by the Devils in the 2011 draft and had 69 points in 274 contests with the team.

The biggest deal though took place between the Montreal Canadiens and Nashville when the Habs sent possible future Hall of Fame defenceman P.K. Subban to the Predators for another possible Hall of Fame blueliner in Shea Weber. The 27-year-old Subban is a former James Norris Trophy winner and had 278 points in 434 games in Montreal while the 31-year-old Weber had 443 points in 763 outings in Nashville. Weber has also reached the 20-goal barrier three times in his career, including a pair of 23-goal campaigns.

The Ottawa Senators announced they will be honouring former captain Daniel Alfredsson in a pre-game ceremony on December 29th. Over in Calgary, the club signed their top restricted free agents Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan and also hired former Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney as a pro scout. Also in case you missed it, American centre Auston Matthews went first overall in the 2016 NHL Draft to Toronto while Finnish winger Patrik Laine went second to the Winnipeg Jets and Canadian winger Pierre-Luc Dubois was taken third by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Most experts had forward Jesse Puljujärvi of Finland ranked ahead of Dubois and he was snapped up by Edmonton with the fourth pick.

The NHL is celebrating its 100thseason in 2016/17 and it faces off about a week later than usual this year as the first puck will be dropped on October 12th. However, fans will be able to enjoy the eight-team World Cup of Hockey tournament from September 17th to October 1st.