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Leafs summer recruit Nikita Zaitsev thriving in final year of KHL deal

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In the summer of 2015, the Leafs were reported to have interest in 23-year-old KHL defensemen Nikita Zaitsev. Here's an update on the young blueliner.

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Top young Russian defensemen Nikita Zaitsev was reportedly a target for the Leafs this summer before he returned to CSKA Moscow to honour the final year of his contract.

"I can’t sign anything now but I visited Leafs and was pleasantly surprised by the reception," the young defender to a Russian news outlet. "I visited Leafs office and the arena, locker-room, talked to GM and the head coach and was very impressed."

The Leafs, he said, were the only team that had a "real big interest" in him, adding that he would return to the KHL with the NHL in the back of his mind.

After a 32-point, 57-game season that included 12 goals in 2014-15, Zaitsev has continued his strong play as one of the KHL's best young players this year.

In 20 games, the 23-year-old has 10 points (4G, 6A), good for first among U24 defensemen.

In 2011, Zaitsev helped Russia capture a gold medal at the World Juniors.

Last season, he was named to the KHL First All-Star Team as one of the league's two best defensemen, joining goaltender Anders Nilsson, defensemen Maxim Chudinov, and forwards Alexander Radulov, Artemi Panarin and Stevie Moses.

A smooth skating 6-2 defensemen, Zaitsev's game is highlighted by an effortless shot and a willingness to jump up into the play as a fourth attacker.

You can watch three of his four goals this season below. Notice how easily he releases the puck, relaxing his grip on his wrist shots instead of powering through the puck.