So, back when Scotty Bowman was putting together his Russian 5 in Detroit, he needed a big, puck-moving defenceman. And he got one who started out in the Red Army.
Now Shanny wants one from the Red Army, too.
And getting this one may not be easy, either.
Nikita Zaitsev, who just turned 24, is 6’2, 196 pounds and still filling out. He’s defensively solid, but it’s his offence that brings the NHL teams calling. He’s a strong-skating, puck-moving defenceman with a nice first pass and a big shot — big enough to blast 11 powerplay goals in 57 games last year.
Did I mention he’s a right-side defenceman?
He’s a right-side defenceman.
If Shanahan can add that kind of player, in that position, without having to use up a top draft pick, the Leafs rebuild adds a storey overnight.
We’ve all heard of him. But because Russian hockey has notoriously low-scoring defencemen, you really need a like-to-like comparison to see how good he is.
[Again today, thanks to @CurtisMMorrisson for the KHL stats]
Here’s Zaitsev, outscoring four other well-known Leaf defencemen from Russia at similar ages. All of them had seasons of more than 30 points in the NHL. But Zaitsev is outpacing them by an extended margin.
So next up, I compared him against the history of KHL, Russian and Soviet defencemen his age, back across 40 years of hockey. And only a half-dozen defencemen his age scored better than Zaitsev across a full season. You’ll recognize some of the big names:
Now, to repeat — as with Soshnikov — I’m not expecting Zaitsev to be in the same class as Fetisov or Markov or Zubov.
But, Zaitsev is already a first-team All-Star, and he’s sustained his high scoring again this year, with five goals (all on the PP) and 16 points in 29 games, along with a +15. So last season wasn’t just a fluke.
And funny thing: While some Russian defencemen never make it in the NHL, amongst the ones that do, most see their PPG scoring rate going up.
And okay, sure, deep in my heart, I want every Russian defenceman the Leafs get to play like wild-man Danny Markov.
Because Danny Markov.
But what if Shanahan delivered a mobile, young, right-handed defenceman — even if he ends up a second-pairing guy — who could work the powerplay and shoot the puck?
I think most of us Leafs fans would be ecstatic.
At this point, though, the real story — and the real challenge — isn’t so much the player.
It’s that the Leafs have just publicly, and aggressively, targeted a top-line Russian player from a big Moscow club. In the last 25 years, the Leafs have mostly targeted older or more marginal players, and usually from weaker clubs or more distant regions.
But a high-scoring, young All-Star direct from the Moscow-based Red Army? No way.
Something’s changed in Toronto, Shanny.
And I’m betting it’s you.
That Shanahan has so visibly gone after Zaitsev — after already searching out and selecting Soshnikov, Timashov and co. — also confirms the idea that he’s aiming high. He’s not just after roster filler or cheap fourth line checkers.
Brendan Shanahan is looking to build something closer to a new Russian 5.
Only for Toronto.
Wherein homeless kittens move to the fore [HOMELESS KITTENS!!]
Of course, Shanahan’s not going to get Zaitsev without breaking a sweat.
Here’s what he’s up against in Russia.
- For starters, Sergei Fedorov is not only an old teammate of Shanahan’s, he’s the General Manager of Zaitsev’s Red Army team. But unlike Nikita Soshnikov’s team last year, the Red Army isn’t going broke. You’d expect Fedorov to try to keep his young All-Star defenceman, and not just hand him over to Toronto.
- Although — with the shaky ruble, and Zaitsev already being pursued hard by Philadelphia, Chicago, LA and others — Fedorov may feel that he’s going to lose Zaitsev anyway. If that’s the case, then it may be better if he lands with an old friend in Toronto, where maybe it’ll count as a favour, and bring something in return. So things are already a bit confusing, eh?
- Now add Slava Fetisov to the mix. Fetisov, the legend of which team? The Red Army. And also a political powerhouse, and a recently-elected member of the KHL board — which makes it triply relevant when Fetisov, back in May, announced that he felt that Russian players shouldn’t be allowed to leave until age 28. Now, that might just have been Fetisov thinking out loud, or just political posturing. But still, that’s a big wild card in play, and not likely helpful to the Leafs getting Zaitsev.
- Now let’s look at the KHL level — remembering Fetisov just landed on their board. For starters, some KHL teams are a bit wobblier these days, given falling oil prices. In addition, word is that the NHL and KHL have even been negotiating a transfer agreement, with a fee-per-player compensation system.And that might help make sense of Fetisov’s statements. Perhaps he was just weighing in — and taking advantage of his political hat and political clout — to try to help improve the KHL’s negotiating position, which would raise any transfer fees the KHL teams got.
- Now roll the film through June. It was just a month after Fetisov sounded off about keeping young Russians home when old buddy Brendan Shanahan invited young Red Army defenceman Nikita Zaitsev over to Toronto for a high-profile visit.
An interesting move, just for the psychological dynamics alone.
Here’s Slava Fetisov, in 2015, wanting to stop an All-Star defenceman from leaving the Red Army. In 1989, Fetisov was the All-Star defenceman fighting to leave the Red Army. in fact, he was the most famous of all players leaving Russia.
Back in 1989, when Fetisov left the Red Army, he landed on a New Jersey team beside who? Brendan Shanahan. And then in 1997 raised the Stanley Cup with Shanahan, who has repeatedly stated his enormous respect for Fetisov.
Oh, yeah. The man who brought Fetisov over? Lou Lamoriello.
That’s a fairly wild set of crossed wires, but bottom line: Shanahan made his move on Zaitsev anyway, just a month after Fetisov’s speech.
And he did it right out in the open, with full media coverage.
Which means Shanahan is apparently happy to drive straight into whatever storm Fetisov’s brewing. As for the media coverage of the Zaitsev visit? Well, here’s an exuberant young Zaitsev describing it [my paraphrase]:
No NHL club showed as much interest as Toronto. Very impressed with city. But stunned at the reception arranged at the ACC. Toured the facilities, talked with Head Coach and GM. Went to a Jays game, slept from 3rd through 6th innings. It was all a pleasant shock. But he definitely intends to leave for the NHL next Summer. But first, he hopes to win in Russia, add some muscle and be prepared.
Now, on the Leaf end, that’s a bit of serious wooing, that is. The days of the Leafs scuffling after down-market European and Russian talent are definitely over.
But, make no mistake, Shanahan has just deliberately thrown down the gauntlet, in public, to Fetisov.
Now, I know it’s Russia and all, but the Zaitsev situation looks to me like the classic situation Churchill spoke about.
“An enigma within a doll dressed in a Leafs sweater holding a glove full of chocolate.”
Or at least, I sure hope that’s chocolate.
In terms of what’s going on here, I see three main possibilities:
Door #1: That Shanahan wants Zaitsev and is going after him, and doesn’t care much what Fetisov said. If they have what looks like a public fight, well, each side ends up looking good to their own fans and constituencies, right?
Except that I can’t imagine Shanahan (who worked in the NHL’s head office and understands its long-term game plan) deliberately picking a public fight with Fetisov and the KHL. Never poke the bear — it’s a bit of a rule, that one, especially a bear that has Putin plus a batch of billionaires sitting in a cave behind it. It just wouldn’t make sense.
Unless Shanahan knows beforehand how this will all play out.
Door #2: Shanny actually knows beforehand how this will play out. In other words, this may all be choreographed. For starters, Shanahan may already have Zaitsev signed up, and all that’s come after is just a little play for the media, one which serves the mutual interests of Shanny and Fetisov. For example, Shanahan might know full well that it’s Fetisov’s job to cause a political fuss, to try and raise fees for his KHL teams. With the Leafs being the NHL’s wealthiest team, higher transfer fees would mostly just knock other teams out of the bidding on future Russian players, thus helping the Leafs.
Door #3: Okay, look. Door #2 was damned complicated enough. And since this is Russia, there are at least 73 more possible doors. Instead, how about we all just sit back, have some chocolate, wait for Zaitsev to arrive, and in the meantime read a “Zaitsev Loves Kitties” story, the type the Russian media love to play up:
Reporter – “About you tell an interesting story. Is it true that you saw in Instagram request for assistance to homeless kittens, and immediately transferred money for treatment?”
Zaitsev – “It was so. It has happened in Novosibirsk. To send money was not that easy. I had to do two attempts. But it turned out.”
Wherein the search for Datsyuk begins [DZAMMIT DZIERKALS!!]
We’ve long known that Shanahan loves him some Scandinavians, what with targeting Nylander and Kapanen with his top assets, and given that the spectacular young Andreas Johnson was already in hand (thanks Thommie Bergman!).
Given the calibre of those kids — plus Mitch Marner and Jeremy Bracco — Shanny doesn’t actually need Russia as his sole supplier of puck possession movers and shakers. Nonetheless, take a look at his Russia versus Scandinavia scoreboard in just 18 months.
|Lindgren 2015||Soshnikov 2015*|
|Nylander 2014||Timashov 2015|
|Engvall 2014||Dzierkals 2015|
|Kapanen 2015*||Korostelev 2015|
As we’ve seen, Timashov is half-Russian and half-Ukrainian, but grew up in Sweden. If he’s counted in the Russian column for the moment, Shanny has added more prospects from Russia and the former-USSR region than he has Swedes plus Finns.
That’s five players from Russia and the former-USSR region in just 18 months, compared to zero players from the region during the four Burke years.
Shanahan is moving Russia and the region square into the Leafs’ sights.
Which reminded me of that thing Shanahan’s old buddy Igor Larionov said, about how there were “four or five Pavel Datsyuks” in Russia who’d been overlooked by the NHL.
After this many surprising moves into the region, it’s pretty clear – Brendan Shanahan is actively and aggressively searching Russia.
And he’s looking to make sure that if there’s a Datsyuk out there, the Leafs get the next one. Or two.
No, Shanahan isn’t expecting his finds will match the performance of Detroit’s Russian 5. Hall of Fame quality isn’t that easy to find these days. Plus, today’s Russian players appear to be less well-trained in puck possession than in the Red Army days.
But Shanahan’s strategy is simply to take advantage of Russia and the region being relatively under-scouted, and then to try and capture some of each year’s best candidates for “the next hidden Datsyuk.”
Maybe he gets lucky and strikes a Datsyuk. It’s not impossible, given that teams have picked up Tarasenko, Kucherov, Kuznetsov and others in recent years. But even if he doesn’t find a star, he’s still collecting good, young assets — and at low cost — who can either play in lower slots in the line-up or be valuable in trades.
Just to review, look at how hard Shanahan has gone at this in just 18 months:
- Dmytro Timashov (aka Nitro Mysteron) – the first kid we wrote about. From a Russian-Ukrainian background, he went on to tear up both Swedish Junior and then the Q. A good friend and teammate of Nylander’s, he showed this pre-season that he can handle the puck, big-time. And he’s already scoring at 1.73 points per game this year for the Quebec Remparts. Future? His defence, and maybe his skating, need some work. But he’s just been signed to his ELC by the Leafs, and is seen as having long-term NHL potential.
- Nikita Soshnikov – As described in the last piece, he’s a bit of a puck predator and a sniper, with some substantial speed, grit, and desire. He may need a year or two in the AHL to learn the North American game and to add size, but the Leafs have signed him for three years, and he looks to get at least an NHL shot.
- Nikita Zaitsev – As discussed, he’s not signed yet. But, at 24, he’s a puck-moving defenceman with a big right-handed shot, and already a first-team KHL All-Star. If he comes over, he’ll almost certainly be guaranteed NHL minutes. Perhaps a longshot for a top pairing role, he’s more likely a second pair guy with some big PP minutes. A potentially very big addition.
- Martins Dzierkals – If the Leafs ever find their totally-unknown “Dzatsyuk,” it could very well be a kid like the unknown Dzierkals. I nearly lost an arm arguing for the little Latvian over the summer, but – coming out of the Russian MHL — he’s firefly-quick and loves the puck. He’s already 1.29 PPG in the Q, and these are his first games in North America. At just 165 pounds, job #1 is to add some size/muscle.
- Rinat Valiev – Big at 6’2, skates well, smart, and tough. Unlikely to be a top-pairing NHL’er, but definite NHL potential.
- Nikita Korostelev – Big winger, big shot, struggled a bit in camp. He’s scoring at 0.77 PPG in Sarnia, but again, he’s regarded by scouts as having strong upside.
No, these guys won’t all become big stars. Some won’t even make the NHL, but there looks to be some dynamite pick-ups in here, especially when you consider the low cost.
When it comes to a new Russian 5 for Toronto… well, why not dream a little? I actually don’t mind the Leafs aiming high for once.
After all, remember…
It has happened in Novosibirsk!
Wherein we consider “Comrade’s Corner, with Slava Fetisov”
While I’d appreciate getting a new Russian 5 and all, I’m not sure I’d actually enjoy the likely (inevitable) response of Toronto’s hockey talk media. Because they would go…
As soon as the first one counted 1-2-3-4-5 Russians, they’d lose it. And the Toronto sports media would kick in the full media cycle. You know the one, where they run a topic through the full range of love/hate story options – just to maximize the number of hot takes. It’s guaranteed to run for months. I can see it going something like this:
Stage 1 – Toronto media notices first Russians arriving at the ACC. Headline: “OMG! RUSSIANS!”
Stage 2 – The traditional kind welcome from reporters. “OH HAI BORIS. WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR SHOES? WHAT GORGEOUS THICK SOLES.” *snicker*
Stage 3 – Media cycle formally initiated. Reporters declare a sudden, insatiable and undying desire for all things Russian. “SHAIBU! WHY NOT COMRADE’S CORNER WITH SLAVA FETISOV INSTEAD?”
Stage 4 – Still… a few questions must be asked. “ARE TODAY’S RUSSIANS STILL RED ON THE INSIDE? WE CUT ONE OPEN TO FIND OUT!!!”
Stage 5 – Concerns arise. The Sun is especially worried. “THE ETOBICOKE CAT BURGLAR? COULD HE BE RUSSIAN? TAXES = BECAUSE RUSSIA? ALL THIS TRAFFIC? IS IT THEM RUSSIANS???!!?”
Stage 6 – Media heartbreak as Russians reject the city’s love. “RAGING RED OAF LEAVES BAD TIP! WHY DO THEY HATE US SO?”
Stage 7 – Things escalate. “REDS KICK CANADIAN CHILDREN OUT OF OUR OWN GAME!!! WHY WON’T THEM RUSSIANS LET OUR LITTLE TIMMIES SKATE?”
Stage 8 – Cold War Le Deux. “DON CHERRY SAYS YOU CAN’T WIN A CUP WITH THEM RUSSIANS. AND WHO WOULD KNOW BETTER HOW NOT TO WIN CUPS THAN OUR DON?!!?1”
Stage 9 – Exhaustion. “OKAY, FAIR ENOUGH, THE RUSSIANS HELPED US WIN A CUP. BUT WHAT HAVE THEY DONE FOR US LATELY?”
Stage 10 – New round. “HEY! LOOK! SOMEBODY ELSE HAS A RUSSIAN! DO WE HAVE ENOUGH RUSSIANS? ARE THERE ENOUGH TO GO AROUND??! WHO LET THEM ESCAPE??!!”
Read the rest of the series here:
- Brendan Shanahan gets “puck possessed” – Part I
- Reversing the curse – Part II
- Shanny listens to his Leaf gut – Part III
- Nylander, Kapanen and Shanny’s Fancy Foreign Friends – Part IV
- Shanahan and Soshnikov – The Kid Who’s Scared of Nothing – Part V
- Nikita Zaitsev: Part of the new Maple Leaf Russian 5? Part VI
- Brendan Shanahan: He’s Changed – Part VII