Zaitsev already carving out space in Maple Leafs’ core group

Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello was overly impressed with the WCH showings of both Nikita Zaitsev and Auston Matthews, saying “the most exciting thing is to know he’s ours.”

TORONTO – The entirety of his NHL experience, to date, covers one pre-season game and a handful of practices.

And yet you already get the sense Nikita Zaitsev is much more than just another hopeful at Toronto Maple Leafs training camp.

The Russian defenceman is a little bit like found money because he arrived as a free agent from the KHL, but he’s quickly carved out a home here. He looked sharp in his exhibition debut against Montreal on Sunday night – drawing praise from coach Mike Babcock – and found himself skating alongside Morgan Rielly at practice on Monday afternoon.

Even though that duo is unlikely to remain intact come the regular season, it’s clear that Zaitsev is already viewed as a core member of this group.

“Once he gets his bearings and he gets really comfortable with his teammates, I think he’s going to be a huge part of what we’re doing,” said Rielly.

“He’s going to play important minutes on the back end for us,” added veteran forward Brooks Laich. “He’s going to play special teams, he’s going to be a guy that’s counted on to move the puck, to break us out. Counted on for some offence, I’m sure. …

“The more we can make him feel comfortable in the locker-room the better he’s going to perform on the ice.”

It is away from the rink where Zaitsev has a leg-up on most Russians making the jump to the NHL. He’s already spent a couple summers in Toronto training under Gary Roberts and first toured the Leafs facilities at Air Canada Centre all the way back in July 2015.

Whereas Nikita Soshnikov spent all of last season working privately with a tutor to improve his English, Zaitsev could probably be giving the lessons.

“He can speak better English than half the American guys we have,” joked Rielly.

Even still, he is attempting to carve a unique path.

There are fewer than 10 established Russian defencemen in the NHL, and virtually all of them were drafted into the league.

But the Leafs don’t seem the least bit concerned that this situation will end up anything like Edmonton’s failed gambit with Anton Belov, who played 57 games in 2013-14 and promptly returned home.

For starters, Zaitsev is younger – with his 25th birthday coming at the end of the month. He also became known as the KHL’s top defenceman over the last three seasons with Central Red Army, and the Leafs have an increasingly strong network of people in Russia they’re able to tap for information.

“He just looks like he knows how to play,” said Babcock. “Once we get him set up with the way we want to play, he’ll get better fast. Obviously he’s a real confident guy and feels he’s a good player.”

That confidence is already evident to teammates.

Komarov first met Zaitsev during the IIHF World Hockey Championship in May and the pair now hang around and chat occasionally after practice. On Monday, Komarov predicted to Sportsnet that his teammate’s transition to the NHL “isn’t going to be a problem at all.”

“He’s really good with the puck,” said Komarov. “He doesn’t really throw it away. He just loves to keep it and he’s a good skater. I think he’s a really good fit for us.”

In a league where transition and puck control are both paramount, you can see why the Leafs were attracted to his skill set. Toronto needs to make sure it builds a blue line capable of getting the puck up to its skilled group of forwards.

Zaitsev showed well for Russia at the recent World Cup, and displayed a sneaky release while beating Canadiens goalie Mike Condon with a wrist shot on Sunday night.

Both were encouraging signs.

“I think the first thing I notice when I watch him play is his skating,” said Rielly. “He’s fast, he moves his feet really well, he can walk the line like probably one of the best I’ve seen. Great shot, he sees the ice very well.

“He’s a very good player.”

You’ll notice that there aren’t any qualifiers being placed on the praise being thrown around by teammates. It’s a pretty strong indication of where expectations are already at for him here.

However, the Russian seems to be taking his new life in stride after making the long-awaited move to Toronto with his wife and seven-month-old baby.

“It’s the best league in the world so it was my dream to play here,” said Zaitsev. “It’s huge for me.”

The Leafs are counting on that feeling being mutual.

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