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Nikita Zaitsev, potential future Maple Leaf, in action in Russia

From Pension Puppets

Nikita Zaitsev was in a game today against one of the top teams in the KHL. What kind of a defenceman is he exactly? And how good?

CSKA Moscow took on SKA St. Petersburg today in a battle of top East Conference teams in the KHL. Moscow, first in their division and the league, has been on a tear, winning their last five. St. Petersburg, in fourth place, has been up and down, winning more than losing, but not in so dominating a fashion.

Why should you care?

Because the KHL is fun and fast and exciting, and the playoffs are less than a month away. Oh, and Nikita Zaitsev is still the top pairing D for CSKA, even if he is rumoured to be signing with the Leafs when the season is over.

I’ve watched his team play before, several times, and I’ll be honest, Zaitsev hasn’t stood out to me. But I’m usually cheering for the other side, so bear that in mind. The only guy in the KHL who has leapt off the screen and looks like he has NHL potential is Nikita Gusev. He is an SKA forward and Tampa Bay draft pick who is unlikely to leave the KHL as he just signed a two-year extension.

Zaitsev looks good on paper. He’s playing top minutes on the top team at a young age. He’s got good points, albeit almost all of his goals, year after year, are on the power play, and he has a decent if not spectacular number of shots per game. He is the classic offensive defenceman, good at jumping up into the play, and the question with those guys is: how are they in their own end, and do they leave the door gaping open behind them when they move up?

CSKA is an intriguing team. They have one of the top offensive stars of the KHL in Alexander Radulov. They have a top goal scorer in Geoff Platt and they have the number one goalie in save percentage in Ilya Sorokin with .955. They also have the lowest goals against of any team in the league. So one has to expect the defensive system and the defencemen are good.

The game was very close, as expected with two good teams nearing the end of the season. CSKA took four penalties in the first, so it was all about the PK.

Zaitsev played some PK time, not the first to be put out, but he’s good, mobile, on the ball. He doesn’t look smooth like a guy who is naturally gifted at it and knows what the opposition is going to do with the puck before they do, but he’s fine.

In the second period, the penalty pendulum swung the other way with SKA taking three, so I saw Zaitsev on the power play quite a bit. CSKA plays a 3 F + 2 D system, and Zaitsev’s partner on the left side was getting the opportunities to shoot it in or move up. This looked to be circumstances, not design. Zaitsev was usually very good at holding the blue line and when the puck did get cleared, he was the guy to go back and get it and move it back up.

That usually worked well, until this happened:

You can see Zaitsev, #22 in white, tying the SKA player up well in the corner, and his two teammates come along to help, the puck squirts free, and…I don’t think that’s on Zaitsev that it went all the way into Steve Moses‘ hot hands out at the point. He had the man, and the other two guys needed to retrieve that loose puck.

CSKA got two more goals, and then they actually played some 5-on-5 time before the horn. They seem to play a similar system in the offensive zone regardless of who was on the ice where one D is the mobile one, and one stays back. Zaitsev always plays as the mobile semi-offensive guy, and he’s good, not reckless at all.

Defensively they leave the D very much to guard the slot, and let the forwards get in the scrums on the wall. He looked fine here as well, plays his position well, is always in the game, not making mistakes.

Russian hockey is fast, not hard-hitting, although former NHL players Slava Voynov and Ilya Kovalchuk on SKA were hitting a lot more than anyone on the Moscow side. I would not expect to see Zaitsev as a guy who uses the body in a way North American hockey expects defencemen to play.

CSKA were playing a bit conservatively with a one goal lead in the third. I wouldn’t try that against a high-octane offensive team like SKA, but I’m not a Russian hockey coach.

Zaitsev is the guy who carries the puck or moves it out, and he has a hell of a shot from the point. It’s not a big boom, it’s more of a guided dart that goes sharp and fast for the net. He was ready to use it in the third, but he wasn’t moving very deep in offensively.

SKA got one of the Moscow players with a dirty elbow to the head, and CSKA had a five-minute power play with less than 10 minutes to play. Zaitsev started things off, quickly retrieving the puck after SKA easily won the faceoff and cleared it, and he had it up ice and in play very fast.

He seems to want the puck on his stick, but he also knows to get rid of it quickly. He’s not out there skating in circles with it; he’s passing it off to the right guy or shooting it in in a way that will generate rebounds if nothing else.

His shot on the power play and his ability to read the play, move into position—he’s a very agile skater—are excellent. I’m not surprised even after only one game of close watching that he’s getting most of his points on the power play.

His 5-on-5 play is much less aggressive, but that seems to be the team style of play. They have forwards to be aggressive, what they need from the D is a good set up.

CSKA made it 3-1 on a rebound from a D-man’s point shot. Not Zaitsev, but Denis Denisov getting things going with a perfectly placed rocket as the power play wound down.

Zaitsev was on the ice to finish the game as SKA poured on the desperate offensive attempts, so he obviously has the trust of his coach.

Nikita Gusev scored in the last seconds of play, but Moscow still got the win at 3-2. (Zaitsev was off; Denisov was the man looking a little less than sharp on the play.)

Zaitsev does play well in his own end. He handles the puck with confidence, moves through the neutral zone well, and he seems particularly good at not being too reckless offensively.

How his game would translate to the NHL is an open question. The power play system his team uses is very different, the overall style of play on bigger ice allows for more outlet passes and fast movement through the neutral zone, and he’s not a guy whose instinct is to play the body. But he has offensive skills, a great shot, and you can’t teach that. You can teach systems.

Source: Nikita Zaitsev, potential future Maple Leaf, in action in Russia

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