To quote Donald Rumsfeld:
... as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. [Like Morgan Rielly for instance] We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. [Like how AHL defenders we've all watched for months and/or years will make the jump to the NHL] But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know... it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. [This is where Nikita Zaitsev fits in]
- Bold text added by the author
If you're reading this series you likely have spent a lot of time watching many of the various defenders near the top of this listing play hockey. You've watched all of Morgan Rielly's games; you saw Connor Carrick lead the AHL in playoff scoring last year after a decent set of games in the NHL; heck, you even got used to the idea of Martin Marincin denying zone entries maybe counterbalancing some of the giveaways people like to fixate upon.
We all have a decent idea of what Morgan Rielly is, we have a reasonable sense of what Carrick could be and we are comfortable debating Marincin's skating ability, lack of physicality, and his crazy reach thanks to how regularly we apply the 'ole eye test.
What most of us aren't, is comfortable suggesting what Nikita Zaitsev is likely to become in the NHL after putting up decent numbers as a top pair defender for CSKA Moscow in the KHL... and doing things like this:
Interestingly Zaitsev ranks in the top-nine for every voter on the panel. This makes him the first player in the T25U25 to achieve a unanimous vote as a member of the top 10. That being said, I was the one of only 3 voters to place him in the top 5, and nobody else thought he deserved to crack into the elite top end talent the Leafs have in their top 4.
One of the biggest issues for NHL fans when trying to assess performance in other pro-leagues is translating from one league to another. We've had NHLe for a long time now in analytical circles, and while it isn't ideal, it does provide a half decent baseline for conversion from one league to another.
Any NHL equivalency for a foreign pro league should be treated as the average result of skaters in their first year making the jump. It isn't an exact result, so much as the central tendency of a range of plausible outcomes. The NHLe translation factor for the KHL is currently around 0.8 NHL points for each KHL point. With that in mind, let us look and compare Zaitsev's results in the KHL in recent years to the development of other defenders.
First, let's see how Zaitsev has done between the ages of 21 and 24. The table encompasses his entire career with CSKA Moscow and his final season with Sibir Novosibirsk that saw him break out as a legit top 4 defender. I have combined regular season and playoff games to increase the sample size as much as possible.
|Year||Team||Age||GP||TOI||TOI/GP||KHL Pts/GP||KHL Pts/60||NHLe Pts/GP||NHLe Pts/60|
It likely would surprise most observers to realize how few NHL defenders are averaging over 0.4 points per game at the ages of 23 and 24. For instance, over the past two years, only six NHL defenders managed to average more than 0.3 points per game. Those defenders would be Cam Fowler, Nick Leddy, Torey Krug, Sami Vatanen, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tyson Barrie.
Only 21 NHL defensemen have managed to produce 0.39 or more points per game in 100+ games at the ages of 23 and 24 since 2010-11, and they are all clearly top 4 defenders. Names like Karlsson, Subban, Hedman, Letang go without saying - but in the range between 0.39 and 0.5 points per game we see names like Ryan Ellis, Jared Spurgeon, T.J. Brodie and Drew Doughty. Just for frame of reference where Leafs fans are concerned, Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson produced 0.35 and 0.36 points per game at ages 23 and 24 respectively.
If we focus instead on per 60 production, Zaitsev's NHLe over the past 2 years has exceeded 1.25 points per 60 in all situations. Comparably, Morgan Rielly's points per 60 the past two years is 1.10. Defenders producing around 1.15 or higher include Alex Goligoski (1.13), Dion Phaneuf (1.13), Cam Fowler (1.14), Ryan Suter (1.15), Johnny Boychuk (1.18), Marc-Edouard Vlasic (1.20), Kevin Klein (1.20), Ryan McDonagh (1.23), Drew Doughty (1.25) and Alex Pietrangelo (1.26).
Even if Zaitsev only produces at 60% of the rate he managed in the KHL, he'll still be posting around 0.95 points per 60 in the NHL. Brian Campbell, Cody Ceci and Francois Beauchemin all produced 0.94 pts/60 the past two years while the likes of Andrej Sekera (0.95), Olli Maatta (0.96), Oscar Klefbom (0.97) and Matt Niskanen (0.98) weren't far ahead of that.
Suffice it to say, I see no reason to be worried about Zaitsev's probable output in the NHL offensively. At the lower end he projects as a top 90 D man in the NHL (top 3) offensively. If he hits his projected totals from the past two years he would be providing top pair offense, and if he continues to develop as an NHLer he's going to be an All-Star.
Defensively Zaitsev's contributions are far harder to read, but it bears noting that the Russian team has consistently selected Zaitsev to represent them at international tournaments and are obviously pleased with his development as a defender. He has been named to Russia's roster for the upcoming World Cup, and will be the only defender on the team who has yet to play an NHL game.
Ex-NHLer Ryan Whitney just finished playing a year in the KHL for HK Sochi, and he gave his perspective on Zaitsev in an interview with Sportsnet shortly after Zaitsev's signing back in May:
I think he's going to surprise a lot of people. 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.
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. He really kind of controlled the pace of play out there the we 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 (CSKA Moscow) as a young defenseman. I remember thinking 'Who is this kid? Was he draft eligible or was he drafted?' I remember being really surprised to see that.
Zaitsev was in fact not drafted by any NHL teams, but he was selected 4th overall in the first ever KHL draft in 2009. In the same year Tomas Tatar was selected 15th while Magnus Paajarvi was selected 17th. For the sake of comparison, in 2010 Sami Vatanen went 2nd overall while Martin Marincin was selected 5th.
In the hopes of adding the views of someone who tracks the KHL regularly, I reached out to Aivis Kalnins, who is a Latvian analyst that has written for The Hockey Writers, One Puck Short and Last Word on Sports. Here is what he had to say about Nikita Zaitsev when I asked him for his insights:
A very mature two-way defenseman who loves offense just like the next guy, but at the same time he's a hustle back player who will enter the opponents offensive zone first and be the first guy back to defend. Loves to hit when he can and is a very good skater. Can play top-2 and loves to improvise. A great penalty killer and puck carrier for the power play, and is the guy you want on the ice to win that game for you with 20 seconds left to play.
If anything that review of Zaitsev is more glowing than anything I can put down about him, but I'm sure most readers will want to make their own judgements before coming to any conclusions.
Now we just have to wait until the middle of September before we actually get to see him play games in North America regularly. I can't speak for the rest of the voters, but I'd suggest Leafs fans should be very excited about the future of Nikita Zaitsev as a Toronto Maple Leaf.