Back in May, The Leafs Nation's Drag Like Pull shared his opinion of the deal, which clearly puts him in the latter category. Based on statistics, he argued that Zaitsev is a bad neutral-zone player and therefore does not deserve his new contract. That, again, brought some controversy.
Some saw the article as pure pessimism, others argued in favour of the ‘eye test.’ But would the ‘eye test’ be any different? Let’s take a look.
Neutral-zone play without the puck
Zaitsev’s statistics suggest major struggles without the puck in the neutral zone. Last season, 70.5% of opposing carry-in attempts that targeted Zaitsev were successful. In addition, he broke up just 5.8% of attempts without letting the puck get into the defensive zone at all.
By looking only at the stats, one may argue that these numbers are a result of usage, as Zaitsev frequently faced opposing top lines. While that could certainly be a factor, a look at his play reveals a major flaw in his neutral-zone play.
In the sequence above, the Los Angeles Kings win a faceoff and stay in possession for the entire play. As the puck moves back into the Kings’ defensive zone, Zaitsev is right in moving up to limit the Kings’ space in the neutral zone. However, when Kings defenceman Drew Doughty gets the puck, he has plenty of time and space to play a breakout pass – which he does. Zaitsev should be able to read that and transition to defence, allowing him to react to neutral-zone plays that target him.
Instead, Zaitsev continues to move forward. He only comes into the frame when Doughty plays a breakout pass to Kings left wing Marian Gaborik, who continues to rush into the Leafs’ D-zone. At that point, Zaitsev has just started his transition from forward to backward – much too late, as he gets caught in the middle of the ice in transition. And despite realising that quickly, not taking a single backward stride and transitioning right back to forward-skating, he is too far away to prevent Gaborik from entering the zone. His excellent skating ability was not enough to save the day here.
As you can see in the next sequence from the same game, this is not an irregular event either.
Here, the Kings gain possession in their defensive zone and play a quick breakout pass. Zaitsev first does the right thing in retreating, but then moves toward the puck carrier again instead of controlling the gap and moving backward. The play doesn’t look terrible because he finishes it off with a hit, preventing the puck carrier from entering the zone. However, this was rather lucky, as Zaitsev almost lost his balance and eventually decided to just throw his body at the opponent in a literal hit-or-miss play. This, again, suggests iffy decision-making.
Of course, Zaitsev is not all bad and there are instances where he controls the gap perfectly and prevents plays. There’s a reason why he is frequently matched up against top competition. Yet, the reasons for his subpar statistics can easily be observed in most games.
He has a tendency to move toward the puck carrier before looking surprised about the fact that said puck carrier comes rushing at him with speed. Perhaps it is an attempt to keep a tight gap in the neutral zone to force early turnovers. However, this is not the way to do that.
Successful gap control
The previous sequences exposed Zaitsev’s flaws that aren’t always visible. He is a strong skater, which is perhaps the most important tool when it comes to gap control and defending the rush.
In the sequence above, Zaitsev does an excellent job covering Kings winger Dustin Brown. As Brown tries to get open for a pass, Zaitsev leaves no room and cuts off his path. With that, the puck carrier’s only option is to dump the puck deep.
However, the play above is not against the puck carrier and has no impact on Carry-in% or Break-up%, although Zaitsev does prevent a zone entry. This shows that the ‘eye test’ is still an important tool, but it does not change the fact that Zaitsev often struggles defending the rush.
Exiting the D-zone
Okay, Zaitsev isn’t great at preventing opposing zone entries. But how does he do once the Leafs regain possession in the defensive zone?
As the numbers suggest, Zaitsev is not an elite breakout player either. In the games tracked by Corey Sznajder, he posted the lowest exit percentage of all Leafs defencemen, and ranked right in the middle with a 42.7% possession exits. Again, after watching Zaitsev and applying the ‘eye test,’ this should not surprise you.
In the sequence above, taken from a January game against the Buffalo Sabres, Jake Gardiner rushes the puck up the left side. Before he can continue for a clean zone exit, however, he realises he is running into traffic and decides to dish the puck over to Zaitsev, who supports him well in the middle.
Again, the play doesn’t look all bad. Zaitsev shifts over to the right side and attempts a board pass to Connor Brown, which is unsuccessful because Brown has his stick lifted off the ice. But, the play reveals another major flaw in Zaitsev’s game.
Just focus on Zaitsev’s head. Before he receives the pass, he takes a quick look up ice to check his options, which is great. After that, he locks his sight on Gardiner, making sure he’s ready to receive the pass. However, between that first look up ice and the turnover, he never checks his options again. First, Zaitsev wants to carry the puck out through the middle, then he drops back after seeing the forechecker. But instead of finding Auston Matthews in the middle or circling back completely to pass it back to Gardiner, Zaitsev throws the puck up the boards. His vision looks plain bad.
Here’s another one.
Here, we have a very similar breakout to the one above. This time, Zaitsev receives the pass from Leo Komarov and carries it up ice. From there, he has two easy options: he could play a drop pass to Gardiner (the stick skating into the frame on the right) or hit William Nylander, who is moving toward the offensive zone, in stride. He doesn’t do either.
One may argue that the two options outlined above are too risky and could lead to turnovers. Then again, so did Zaitsev’s pass.
The only way to get into the offensive zone with possession is with speed. Once the attacker stops at the blue line, which happened in the sequence above, the only thing that player can do when he receives a pass is deflecting it into the offensive zone – without possession.
Hockey is about evaluating options and taking calculated risks, but Zaitsev doesn’t seem to do either. This, along with mediocre vision on the breakout, is part of why he ices the puck so much.
Controlled exits and entries
There are certainly instances where Zaitsev does a solid job, albeit nothing special. Otherwise, he would not receive the ice time he’s receiving, and would not have been offered a massive contract extension.
In the sequence above, Zaitsev receives the puck on a dump-out by the Calgary Flames and retreats all the way back into the Leafs’ defensive zone, creating time and space for himself. There, he gets pressured by two forecheckers. But instead of panicking and throwing the puck up ice – which is something he does on occasion – Zaitsev plays a simple D-to-D pass to Gardiner. Gardiner then forwards the puck with a stretch pass to Nazem Kadri, who can execute a clean zone entry.
Throughout the season, there will be many, many instances where we can observe plays like this. Zaitsev likes to play it safe. It can be effective, but is definitely nothing special.
There are two things that stand out.
One, Zaitsev’s decision-making can be iffy, both with and without the puck. His vision on the breakout is far from elite, but even when options are clearly presented in front of him, he often struggles to execute plays. On the backcheck, Zaitsev occasionally pushes forward instead of retreating, giving his opponents an easy time on the zone entry. All of this reflects in his stats.
Two, Zaitsev likes to play it safe. He is a strong player and the Maple Leafs are lucky to have him. He just isn’t overly flashy or creative. For Zaitsev, the safest way to get the puck out of the defensive zone and up the ice with possession seems to be a pass to his D-partner. There is really nothing wrong with this, so long as he manages to get the puck there safely and frequently.
This also matches Drag Like Pull’s conclusion:
"Nikita Zaitsev scores a reasonable amount of points, but he doesn’t generate a lot of offence on his own. He struggles to keep the puck out of the Leafs defensive zone, and he struggles to get the puck back up ice once he recovers it. On the whole, the results are not good."
Zaitsev is a valuable player for the Maple Leafs – but he is not a good transition player. Going into his second NHL season, he still has time to improve. Zaitsev was signed to a huge contract extension this year, though, so it’s only fair to evaluate what he showed us in the 2016-17 campaign.