Impressive Zaitsev could see serious ice time with Leafs


Russia's Nikita Zaitsev, right, tries to slow down Czech Republic's Tomas Filippi during a Euro Hockey Tour Karjala Cup game. (Martti Kainulainen/Lehtikuva/AP)

Moscow, Russia – Mike Babcock didn’t seem like he expected to be caught up in an impromptu press gathering on Monday afternoon in Moscow. And given that fact, he must have been even more surprised to find himself relaying the opening minutes of the meeting to a latecomer.

Asked by another party who didn’t anticipate the interview session—hey, I just looked up from my computer and there was a scrum—if anybody had already brought up Nikita Zaitsev, Babcock confirmed the subject had already been broached and was kind enough to provide a synopsis:

“They said, ‘He plays on the third line here.’ I said, ‘The Russian coach plays the old players, that’s what they do. I play the best players.’”

Combine that philosophy with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ organizational need for defencemen and you get the sense Zaitsev could log some serious ice time for the Blue and White come October.

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With offensive whiz kids Mitch Marner and William Nylander already in the system—not to mention a 2016 first overall pick that will be used on a forward—the Leafs’ goal-producing future looks bright. The picture on the back end, however, has yet to fully develop, but could come more into focus with the arrival of Zaitsev.

The 24-year-old was wooed by Toronto as far back as last summer and signed a one-year deal with the club before the world championship kicked off in his home country in early May. Zaitsev, who indicated he’s had very open and encouraging dialog with the Leafs, believes the time is now to live out a boyhood dream.

“That’s why I start to play hockey, to play in NHL,” he said.

Zaitsev speaks English well, to the point that he acted as a translator for fellow young Russians who were attending the NHL draft combine several years ago. But just because he has command of the language doesn’t mean he’s anxious to spout off about what Toronto fans can expect from him.

“I will try to show something next year, who I am,” he said. “I don’t want to talk too much, I just want to show my game.”

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As Babcock noted, Zaitsev—who had an assist in Tuesday’s 4-1 dismantling of Sweden—isn’t exactly a workhorse on a Russian squad that, other than former Los Angeles King Slava Voynov and Washington Capital Dmitry Orlov, doesn’t really feature a blue liner who immediately stands out as superior to him.

Zaitsev—never drafted by an NHL club—has put up quality offensive numbers the past few KHL seasons for CSKA Moscow and took his game to another level during the playoffs this year, when he registered 13 points in 20 contests to lead all D-men in scoring.

“He’s the best Russian defenceman outside the NHL,” said Alexander Khavanov, an analyst on Russian TV who played four seasons with the St. Louis Blues and one with the Maple Leafs.

Asked if he thought Zaitsev could be a quality NHLer soon, Babcock answered in the tone of somebody being asked whether he wanted an adult beverage after a 12-hour workday.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “For sure. He skates, got good sense, good kid. He’ll help us.”

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The Toronto bench boss isn’t the only person who sees it that way. In addition to suiting up beside Zaitsev at this year’s worlds, Washington Capitals centre Evgeny Kuznetsov has played with him on Russian squads at the world junior championship and under-18 tournament. He believes the six-foot-two Zaitsev—who draws the most accolades for his skating—is mentally and physically prepared for the NHL and noted he can do a little bit of everything, from jumping up to be the fourth man on the rush to quieting things down in the defensive zone.

“He’s gonna be great D for Maple Leafs,” Kuznetsov said. “I think he’s gonna play right away and he’s gonna play like 20-25 minutes.”

If that’s the case, you can count on additional “Oh Yeahs” to start spilling out of Toronto soon.

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