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Nikita Zaitsev gives a thoughtful Russian interview: After he dunks on Don Cherry

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Now translated to English, Zaitsev’s thoughts on the Leafs, his season, and NHL hockey reveal the man behind the serious face.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Calgary Flames Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images

On May 2, Russian site Sport-Express published an interview with the Toronto Maple Leafs defender Nikita Zaitsev. The interview was conducted just as the news of his contract extension was announced.

What got attention from that interview was a crack he made about Don Cherry. This comes on the heels of Cherry making some sort of pronouncement on Zaitsev. I wouldn’t know, I only listen to Cherry once per year when he brings the top draft picks on his show.

While Zaitsev’s dunk on Cherry was funny, and a classic bit of Zaitsev’s way with the press, it was hardly the most interesting thing in the interview.

Writer and translator Alessandro Seren Rosso posted a translation of the full interview and it’s full of interesting insights into how the Leafs and Mike Babcock communicate with the players, and how Zaitsev sees his first year in the NHL.

The first question Alexei Shevchenko asks is about Zaitsev’s results in the NHL, referring to his minus 26, but it’s the same question and the same answer if you ask about his Corsi Against per 60 minutes.

NZ: The stats don’t always tell you the whole truth. Yes, I finished the season being minus-26. I don’t want to make excuses, but I always played against the top lines in the NHL. Against those players who have to get the job done for their teams. If for example we play against Edmonton and Connor McDavid gets on the ice and I’m on the bench, then I’m gonna hit the ice myself right away. If the Blackhawks ice Kane’s line, then I am going to go too.

It’s a quality of competition argument, and we know it’s a valid one. It’s valid for him and for his most frequent partner Morgan Rielly. When Zaitsev was moved late in the season to play with Jake Gardiner, as Mike Babcock sought an arrangement that let him play the four defenders he trusted most the most minutes (those three plus Matt Hunwick), his workload was not lessened.

But first we must ask if QOC really mitigates a defenders stats upwards. The answer to that seems to be yes, particularly if that defender plays a lot of minutes. Hockey Graphs broke this all down last year and came to this conclusion:

For defensemen, there was only one metric of significance for both offense and defense. Def TOI QoT for CF60 and Fwd TOI QoC for CA60.

To translate that into English: A defender’s shots for is improved by the strength of his defence partner, but his shots against is harmed by the strength of the forwards he plays against.

How much that matters is the magic question, and that is difficult to answer in a specific case. You can calculate all the league averages you like, they still don’t tell you exactly how much one individual’s results will change with a different usage.

If all of this sounds a little familiar, it should, because it was discussed this time last year with respect to Rielly and Hunwick. Hunwick’s usage changed a lot this season as he was essentially replaced by Zaitsev. His changed role led a lot of people to suddenly realize, particularly late in the season, that Hunwick wasn’t the horror show they had thought he was.

We don’t know if Zaitsev can improve in results if the Leafs bring another right-handed defender in above him—which his payscale indicates is possible. Most contenders are not paying their top defender so little. It is also possible that Zaitsev can develop his NHL game to return better results.

The development angle is interesting because he has not been playing exactly like he did for Moscow CSKA in the KHL.

AS: You mostly didn’t shoot, but dump(ed) the puck in.

NZ: The fact is that you don’t have much time to get a good shot. Yes, I understand what you’re trying to say, but we had another plan to get the puck close to the crease faster, and it didn’t include shots from the point.

Zaitsev’s thread-the-needle point shot was very effective in the KHL. But on the smaller ice, with everyone crowding the slot, five players back defending—life is different in the NHL.

Life is different off the ice in the NHL as well. Zaitsev admits at one point that back in January, he wasn’t that in love with Toronto, but his opinion changed over time.

AS: Russian players have to change themselves, their personality, once they move to America?

NZ: Yes. Another mentality. For example, in Russia you must be fully focused on the games, you can’t smile, or laugh too much. In America it’s different. With CSKA, we’d tune the music in like 10 minutes before the game, while with the Leafs we had people dancing in the locker room.

AS: Did you dance yourself?

NZ: No, I did not, but we have some skillful guys. And no one sees anything bad in it. It’s clear that what matters most is the way you act on ice, and not off the ice. In our locker room, it was prohibited to frown.

I hope he doesn’t try to change too much, but he does say that for a Russian, a frown is a sign of a hard worker. They talk about work ethic and expectations after signing a big contract a little more.

AS: In North America, it always looks like that players who get big contracts don’t stop working and work hard to earn every penny. Of course, there are exceptions, but they are exceptions. What’s your opinion?

NZ: Hard to say. I think that [in North America] you aren’t going to get big money just because someone likes you. And if you’re offered a big contract it’s because they understand that you won’t stop working the day after, but that instead, you’ll work hard to show that they weren’t wrong.

Zaitsev talks about his summer plans, how he plans to adapt his training to suit the NHL game he wants to play, and some of the mistakes he made in his first year. He also offers some very good advice about criticism:

NZ: I read people’s opinions and try to understand them. But I pay the most attention only to a selected group of people. The most important thing for me is to be able to watch my teammates in their eyes. So that I can enter the locker room with a raised head. I don’t feel bad for anything else.

He has a lot to say about Mike Babcock, someone he clearly does pay attention to, but this stood out to me:

NZ: He [Babcock] always knows what’s going on with you. He’s always showing that we aren’t just hockey players, but people that he cares about. He can advise you a good restaurant, and he is always interested in knowing what places you visited. He is always asking if everything is good and if he can help you, but at the same time, he tries not to exaggerate.

AS: In what sense?

NZ: At first I wanted to know everything about the game in the NHL. I asked my coaches to tell me even the littlest detail of our gameplan. But Mike prohibited me from doing so. He told me: “I perfectly know the way you see the ice, the way you think. If you need to fix something up, I’ll tell you, and don’t worry about the rest.”

Or, “Just play,” as Babcock likes to say.

There is a long bit about Babcock joking with Zaitsev and Rielly about their bad plus/minus rating that’s funny. Babcock was clearly sending the message that he didn’t care. A superficial read of that could lead you to think that he doesn’t think that results matter, that he likes these players, and he won’t be swayed by their bad stats. He has his favourites. All coaches do, or so the saying goes.

But another way to see that is that Babcock doesn’t think Rielly and Zaitsev should concern themselves, not that he doesn’t take notice himself. “If you need to fix something up, I’ll tell you.” The burden of putting the players in a position to succeed is Babcock’s as a coach. It is up to him to use the players he has to the best advantage of the team.

Zaitsev comes off in this interview as a very interesting person fully engaged in the game and committed to improving all the time. You should read the whole thing, but I can absolutely see why the Leafs decided he was the kind of player they wanted to have on the team. Obviously, they also feel he has the skill and talent they need too.

I think he’d make an outstanding second pair defender. His results overall on this season include a lot of time where, by his own admission, he didn’t know what he should be doing. An expectation that he will improve as he climbs the learning curve and is more comfortable in the system is reasonable.

If the Leafs are forced to play Zaitsev, Rielly and Gardiner, along with a fourth to be named later, as a sort of cut-price top four, it can work. Zaitsev will commit to that fully and fail only when he can’t succeed, never from not trying. The better that fourth is, and the better he fits with the other three, the better the team will be. Zaitsev is only one part of the picture.