Whitney spoke to Sportsnet 590 The Fan’s Dean Blundell & Co., Thursday and had high praise for his former opponent from when he played in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
“I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Whitney said. “The physical part of the game will be different for him in the NHL, but the way he moves the puck and skates and how defensive you now have to be to play, it just really makes you think he can be really successful for the Leafs.”
Toronto signed the 24-year-old Russian defenceman to a one-year, entry-level contract on Monday. Zaitsev had eight goals and 18 assists in 46 games this season for CSKA Moscow.
Whitney, who played 481 career NHL games for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Ducks, Florida Panthers and Edmonton Oilers, saw Zaitsev play during his time with HC Sochi in 2014-15.
Whitney is also a defenceman and said that Zaitsev jumped out to him right away.
“Just smooth as silk out there, great skater, light on his feet. Not a huge guy, but in today’s NHL you don’t really need to be,” Whitney said. “He really kind of controlled the pace of play out there the way he always had his head up and was great at getting the puck out. Guys couldn’t really get a piece of him, for the ones that did hit over there.
“But on the power play he walked the line. He got lots of shots through and really kind of led their team as a young defenceman. I remember thinking, ‘Who is this kid? Was he draft eligible or was he drafted?’ I remember being really surprised to see that.”
Zaitsev, a two-time KHL all-star, will represent his country at the IIHF World Championship this month. Russia opens preliminary-round play Friday against the Czech Republic.