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Con: The Nikita Zaitsev contract probably wasn’t a good one

I won’t say ‘definitely’, but probably. Here’s why.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The scouting report

I like Nikita Zaitsev well enough as a player. He skates well with the puck when he has a mind to, and can be quite effective in the offensive zone. At 6’2’’ he gives the Leafs a bit of size, which is something they don’t have a lot of, and he still managed to maintain a positive penalty differential. Also, he’s a right-handed shot, which is obviously something of a need for the Leafs. At a little under two million on the season in total salary, his first year in the NHL represented a no-brainer gamble for the Leafs, and it paid off.

On the other hand, Zaitsev did not skate the puck out of the defensive zone as often as he appeared capable of, and the Leafs wound up conceding a lot of shots while he was on the ice. Lapses in defensive coverage and positioning weren’t altogether uncommon either, and in the end, although he is clearly talented enough to remain an NHL defenceman for some time, he has some significant limitations.

Possession numbers aren’t particularly kind to Zaitsev

This is one of those situations where the stats match quite closely what I have observed with my eyes this season – and really, I have to confess that I hadn’t even checked the numbers until I was asked to write this post.

From Corsica:

Leafs' Defence 5v5 stats, score adjusted

Player GP TOI CF60 CA60 CF% Sh% Sv% xGF xGA xGF60 xGA60 xGF% SCF60 SCA60 SCF% GF60 GA60 GF% PENDIFF
Player GP TOI CF60 CA60 CF% Sh% Sv% xGF xGA xGF60 xGA60 xGF% SCF60 SCA60 SCF% GF60 GA60 GF% PENDIFF
ALEXEY.MARCHENKO 41 149.1 61.31 63.87 48.98 8.82 93.9 5.74 7.64 2.31 3.07 42.89 8.81 12.57 41.22 2.48 2.58 49.01 2
CONNOR.CARRICK 67 994.17 64.56 59.61 52 9.16 92.15 47.14 42.85 2.85 2.59 52.39 9.42 7.45 55.85 3.33 2.57 56.47 -1
JAKE.GARDINER 82 1417.01 65.18 59.96 52.09 9.13 93.45 72.98 65.07 3.09 2.76 52.86 10.56 8.5 55.41 3.14 2.17 59.1 -18
MARTIN.MARINCIN 25 368.26 63.31 58.25 52.08 10.27 91.39 20.08 17.01 3.27 2.77 54.14 9.84 8.45 53.8 2.78 2.92 48.78 -1
MATT.HUNWICK 72 1057.99 59.27 56.74 51.09 8.4 93.12 51.61 42.99 2.93 2.44 54.56 9.8 8.2 54.44 2.47 2.12 53.85 -15
MORGAN.RIELLY 76 1304.58 65.13 60.84 51.7 7.22 90.42 65.26 60.42 3 2.78 51.93 10.77 9.35 53.53 2.55 3.25 43.91 11
NIKITA.ZAITSEV 82 1398.88 63.05 60.72 50.94 7.96 91.15 69.47 67.04 2.98 2.88 50.89 9.84 9.42 51.1 2.47 2.92 45.78 10
ROMAN.POLAK 75 1090.11 59.96 61.53 49.35 7.48 94.3 55.19 49.21 3.04 2.71 52.86 10.42 8.62 54.72 2.23 1.94 53.53 -24

Let’s see here:

  • Zaitsev’s CF% is better than only Roman Polak and Alexey Marchenko (whose same size is still quite small)
  • His CA60 is better than the previous two, plus Morgan Rielly
  • His Scoring Chances Against per 60 is second worst, better than only Rielly
  • His Expected Goals Against is worst on the team
  • His Expected Goals For Percentage is second-worst (better than Marchenko)
  • His actual Goals For Percentage and his Goals Against per 60 are both second-worst (better than Rielly in both cases)
  • Zaitsev was one of only three Leaf defenders to have a positive penalty differential, and Rielly was the only one better in that regard.

The numbers are pretty clear: Zaitsev was in over his head this season, in a similar way that Morgan Rielly was in over his head. They both contributed well enough offensively, but obviously struggled with big minutes and tough competition. To be clear, neither player is bad, just over-extended.

Own The Puck’s HERO chart sums this all up rather succinctly:

So there you have it. A guy who could maybe play on team’s middle-four pairing. With adjustments, it appears that Zaitsev’s possession impact is even quite weak for a 3-4 defenceman, but I am willing to believe that if the Leafs pushed him down the lineup, he might improve these numbers. But saying that Zaitsev is a clear number 3-4 is still somewhat speculative: he hasn’t had that impact, yet.

A bit more context

Let’s see how Zaitsev’s WOWY numbers look against any other player he was on the ice for 100 minutes with (there are 18 of them):

  • Every single player had a worse GF% with Zaitsev.
  • All but two players had a worse CF% with Zaitsev (Leo Komarov and Matt Hunwick)
  • All but four players (Matthews, Hyman, Marner, and Marincin) had worse CA60 with Zaitsev
  • All but two players (Kadri and Matthews) had worse GA60 with Zaitsev

Just like with Zaitsev’s individual numbers, I suspect that these contextual numbers could improve if Zaitsev got pushed down the lineup, but again, that’s hard to prove. Remember that quality of competition is only one factor in these types of numbers.

But are these results in large part Rielly’s fault?

We all know Rielly’s defensive numbers are quite poor. Last year, everyone said that it was because he played with Matt Hunwick. This year, Rielly played with Zaitsev and Hunwick’s numbers aren’t so bad, and Zaitsev had a rough go in the DZ.

But looking at Zaitsev’s numbers away from Rielly, and Rielly’s away from Zaitsev, their zone starts don’t diverge much at all, and Rielly’s possession stats get a bit better. Zaitsev actually got worse.

By adjusting for zone, score, and venue, Corsica tells us that the news is far less good for Zaitsev. Rielly got better without him when Rielly played with Marincin, Hunwick, or Carrick, and worse with only Marchenko and Polak, both of whom he played less time with.

Zaitsev was worse with every other player he was with: Gardiner (!), Hunwick, and Marincin.

No, Zaitsev wasn’t getting worse zone starts away from Rielly.

It just doesn’t look like Rielly is the problem. Maybe it’s a question of QoC, but there is a sizeable difference here to make up for.

Finally, Zaitsev’s new contract, and why it isn’t a great idea

I think by now that we have safely established that Zaitsev is not a first pairing defender (as one or two people seemed to think yesterday), but also that he struggled to have the impact on possession of a second pairing defenceman. Zaitsev could be a decent second pairing defenceman next season if he got some shelter... but he didn’t prove that this season. It’s like calling a forward a 20-goal scorer because you think he has the potential to do it. Until he does, he’s not a 20-goal scorer. So already, I’m iffy. If Zaitsev did not have the possession impact of a solid second-pairing guy, then $4.5M is quite a bit of money.

And then there’s the age thing. Zaitsev is 25. And by the end of his contract he’ll be 32.

Production tends to fall off after the age of 24, but players do retain about 90% of their scoring through the age of 29, which would cover most of Zaitsev’s contract. It would of course leave three years where things drop off a bit more, but for most of Zaitsev’s contract though, his production would be adequate for a 3-4 defender.

When it comes to WAR (wins above replacement), there is a similarly gentle slope until the age of 29. The slope is slightly gentler for defeceman, but not by too much. So there’s some drop-off. It isn’t precipitous, but it’s also real enough that it would be a mistake to expect Zaitsev to improve, overall.

Here’s the rub: if Zaitsev is barely a 4th defenceman now, is his sheltering going to offset the decline from age? The shelter may only provide a marginal improvement, and the aging process may only provide a marginal decline. If they offset—and that’s a bit if—the Leafs are left with a player that produces points like a second-pair guy, but who has a possession impact of a good bottom pairing D.

Let’s also not forget that Zaitsev just had a concussion. Players usually bounce back from those just fine, right? He sure looked fine against Washington in the playoffs. Is this beginning to feel a little bit like the John-Michael Liles contract to anyone else? They’re different situations, admittedly, but not completely.

Another point to keep in mind is that we have no proof that Zaitsev is improving and continuing to adjust to the NHL.

Zaitsev not improving

That rolling average Corsi is courtesy of Corsica, by the way, and is adjusted for score, zone, and venue.

So it doesn’t look like Zaitsev was steadily improving last season. In fact, he got worse. At this point, arguments about adjusting to the North American game are not only speculative, but actually run counter to the evidence we have.

Finally, I reject the argument that the Leafs are at a point where they can overpay players on long-term deals. Quite frankly, there is a pretty decent argument to be made that Zaitsev is overpaid now, let alone in years 3 and 4 of his contract, when the likes of Nylander, Marner, and Matthews will already be finished their ELCs. For a guy who has yet to put up the possession numbers of a 3-4 D-man, this is quite a bit of money.

To recap, tl;dr

  • Zaitsev’s point production is fine, and should be for 5/7 years of his contract.
  • Zaitsev’s possession stats are decidedly not fine, and the evidence we have suggests that he isn’t simply being dragged down by Morgan Rielly.
  • There is no evidence to suggest that Zaitsev’s possession stats will improve on their own outside of some expected variance – he is, after all, getting older.
  • Zaitsev’s possession numbers shouldn’t fall off a cliff (for at least 5/7 seasons), but they likely will get a bit worse with age.
  • His possession stats should see some improvement if he gets sheltered, but that’s a bit “if”. How are the Leafs going to find a coveted top-pairing RH defenceman?
  • There is no evidence to support that Zaitsev’s struggles are simply an adjustment period to the North American game.
  • $4.5M is a lot of money for a guy with the possession impact of a third pairing D, offensive production notwithstanding (especially if they do wind up getting a legitimate top-2 RHD – Zaitsev might be bumped from the power play altogether).
  • 7 years is a long time for that poor possession impact to get worse.