The worst-kept secret in Leafland has been made publicly official – 24-year-old Russian defenceman Nikita Zaitsev is coming overseas to join the Toronto Maple Leafs on a one-year entry-level contract.

The Leafs actually emerged as winners of the Zaitsev sweepstakes last June, when they flew Zaitsev to Toronto for a tour of the city and a meeting with Mike Babcock and Brendan Shanahan.  CSKA GM Sergei Fedorov acknowledged a few weeks ago that he was aware the entire season of Zaitsev’s decision to sign with Toronto at the end of his KHL contract (which expired April 30).

The Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings among others were reported as having expressed interest in Zaitsev in recent years. The New York Rangers invited him to their prospect development camp in 2012, while the Flyers were said to be keen on prying the defenceman out of the KHL dating back several years.

Zaitsev, who turns 25 in October, will be an RFA at the end of 2016-17.  The Leafs have almost certainly maxed out the bonus component of this one-year contract to give Zaitsev the chance to earn substantially more than the $925,000 ELC base salary and help make this worth his while financially. That will bring Zaitsev’s cap hit to about double his base salary in 2016-17, or around $1.8 million.

Update with contract details:

As expected, it’s a bonus laden one-year contract that takes the cap hit up to nearly $1.8 million. The ‘Euro assignment clause’ protects Zaitsev against the possibility of getting stuck in the AHL while making a two-way salary (as part of an entry-level deal). It doesn’t necessarily mean Zaitsev would refuse to spend any time at all in the AHL, but it prevents him from spending the majority of the season down there making pennies on the dollar compared to what he could earn in the KHL.

After his CSKA Moscow team fell short in the Gagarin Cup Final to Magnitka on April 19, Zaitsev finished his 2016 playoff campaign tied for first in points by a defenceman in the KHL playoffs with 13 in 20 games while averaging 22:32 time on ice a night. At age 24, Zaitsev led the CSKA blueline in time on ice per game, goals and assists during the 2015-16 season. Here is where he stacked up among the top 20 KHL defencemen:

Top 20 KHL Defencemen by Points Scoring — 2015-16 Regular Season

Cam Barker3055931400.730.160.5620.0460.111192.27.619:53
Kevin Dallman3560832400.670.130.5340.0740.071642.74.925:22
Mat Robinson29581424380.660.240.41100.1740.071192.111.822:11
Chris Lee3560928370.620.150.4760.1020.031422.46.325:01
Philip Larsen26521125360.690.210.4870.1340.081693.26.520:42
Alexander Loginov29551124350.640.200.4420.0480.151382.5821:51
Mike Lundin31601122330.550.180.3740.0770.121642.76.724:51
Nick Bailen2640625310.780.150.6330.0830.081062.65.728:07
Sami Lepisto31601119300.500.180.3270.1240.071392.37.922:41
Jonathon Blum2755822300.550.150.4040.0740.071352.55.925:43
Charles Genoway2956920290.520.160.3660.1120.041382.56.520:35
Ziyat Paigin2145919280.620.200.4250.1140.0988210.216:00
Ville Lajunen2858919280.480.160.3330.0560.101572.75.720:24
Ryan Gunderson3060522270.450.080.3710.0240.071662.8325:22
Nikita Zaitsev2446818260.570.170.3910.0270.151032.27.821:01
Topi Jaakola32571015250.440.180.2670.1220.041272.27.920:27
Staffan Kronwall3360322250.420.050.3720.0310.021141.92.620:49
Oskars Bartulis2952816240.460.150.3140.0840.081462.85.525:28
Tomas Kundratek2656618240.430.110.3230.0530.051242.24.822:14
Artyom Alyayev21481013230.480.210.2730.0670.15801.712.517:35

A quick summary:

  • 9th in points per game
  • 9th in goals per game
  • T-1st in powerplay goals per game
  • 2nd in points among defencemen 25 and under, behind 21-year-old Ziyat Paigin, who the Oilers drafted as a 20-year-old in the seventh round in 2015.

Here are his NHL equivalencies — courtesy of @CrzyCanucklehead’s spreadsheet, based on Behind The Net’s figures — first with just his regular season stats and then with his regular season and playoff totals combined:

Nikita Zaitsev NHLe — 2015-16 Regular Season

PlayerLeaguePointsGamesPPGNHLeDifficultyNumber of Players
N. ZaitsevKHL26460.5737.080.833

Nikita Zaitsev NHLe — 2015-16 Regular Season + Playoffs

PlayerLeaguePointsGamesPPGNHLeDifficultyNumber of Players
N. ZaitsevKHL39660.5938.760.833

This is the furthest thing from an exact science, so take the food for thought with a grain of salt (Cam Barker, the leading scorer in the KHL among defencemen, would have an NHLe of 48 points this past season). The most important factor to consider is that Zaitsev is just entering his prime years as a defenceman. For some like-aged comparisons of Zaitsev versus former Maple Leaf Russian defencemen and some of the best Russian rearguard imports throughout NHL history, Quinn MacKeen’s excellent piece back in December has you covered. Here’s an abstract:

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.

In addition to some statistical comparisons, Quinn takes a look at Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan’s extensive Russian network, where the Zaitsev signing fits in the historical context of NHL-KHL relations, and how the acquisition fits the “Euro-friendly” approach to team building under the Leafs‘ current management regime that was absent, at least in terms of recruiting and drafting talent out of Russia, during the Brian Burke era.

It is, of course, guesswork as to how Zaitsev’s game will translate on the smaller ice surface against tougher competition. You can go down the list of duds that never successfully made the transition, or you can look at the fact that the Zaitsev signing comes after a season in which Artemi Panarin came over to the NHL as a free agent from St. Petersburg at the same age (24) and ended up finishing top ten in scoring in his rookie year. You never really know, but we can be sure this is a free wallet — zero acquisition cost, on a low-risk contract — at a position on the Leafs‘ depth chart that is in major need of addressing.

Zaitsev has been billed as potentially capable of stepping into top-four role on the right side of an NHL defence right away. His mobility and heavy shot are his standout attributes, and he’s got “NHL size” at 6’2, 196-pounds. He’ll be seeing some PP opportunity in Toronto with his puckmoving ability and big right-handed shot off the blueline (the highlight package below contains multiple examples of the cannon in his arsenal). Zaitsev scored seven of his eight goals this past season on the powerplay — tied for first in the KHL in powerplay goals per game among defencemen — with two of his four in the playoffs also coming on the man advantage. It was apparent last season that the Leafs lacked a big-shot threat in 5v4, 5v3 and 4v3 situations. If he can adjust his game to the NHL, Zaitsev should be able to provide that.

Saturday night’s lottery win was a gargantuan step toward solidifying the center position for the Leafs moving forward, and they’ll be hoping this addition is an upgrade at another vital spot on the roster — the top four of their blueline.

Toronto Maple Leafs Defensive Depth Chart

Jake GardinerMorgan Rielly
Matt HunwickNikita Zaitsev
Martin Marincin (RFA)Connor Carrick (RFA)
Rinat ValievFrank Corrado (RFA)
Viktor Loov
Stuart Percy (RFA)
Scott Harrington (RFA)

Nikita Zaitsev Career Statistics

SeasonTeamLgeGPGAPtsPIM+/-Playoffs: GPGAPtsPIM
2009-10Novosibirsk SibirKHL400116-10----------
2010-11Novosibirsk SibirKHL3902212540002
2011-12Novosibirsk SibirKHL53134284
2012-13Novosibirsk SibirKHL497111841-771018
2013-14CSKA MoscowKHL334812181411227
2014-15CSKA MoscowKHL571220323127161782
2015-16CSKA MoscowKHL4681826202120491310

Nikita Zaitsev Highlights