Since signing a seven-year deal last summer, Nikita Zaitsev has been one of the most polarizing players on the Toronto Maple Leafs roster.

This season, his role has changed considerably. He’s no longer on the top pairing and his power play time has evaporated, which helps to explain his 19-point pace compared to last season’s 36-point rookie season. His shorthanded time on ice went up from 1:43 per game last season to 3:08 this season, but at even strength, his zone starts have remained basically the same, changing by less than one percent between seasons.

What is particularly eye catching about Zaitsev: His most common linemate is Jake Gardiner. The two have played 750 minutes together and have posted a 49.13 Corsi-For percentage in that time. When Gardiner has played without Zaitsev, he’s been a 48.25 CF%, and when Zaitsev has played without Gardiner, he’s been a 39.43 CF%. In Hockey Abstract’s player usage chart, Zaitsev sticks out as a player not playing the most difficult minutes but struggling in those minutes:

Toronto Maple Leafs Player Usage Chart

When data has been made public on his zone exits, Zaitsev has fared poorly as a player who tends to dump the puck out off the glass often and who struggles to make tape-to-tape passes, and all of that is pretty obvious while watching him.

With that said, the team results with and without him this season is a mixed bag. When he went down to injury in the middle of December, the Leafs put up an 8-5-4 record in his absence and promptly went on an 11-2-0 run when he returned. Their goal differential when he’s out is +5. With him, it’s +26. On a related note, his PDO is up over 103 this season.

Without Zaitsev, the Leafs’ shot differential is -8 in 17 games, compared to -144 in 52 games with him. Interestingly, the penalty kill – where he’s considered a big asset – is at 86.7% without him and 81.1% with him.

All in all, that gives the Leafs a defenseman that is not playing ultra-tough minutes but also not doing particularly well in those minutes. Meanwhile, his production has dropped right off without power play time this season. He does play a ton, including the penalty kill, but the penalty kill has been more productive without him in a short sample. Turning 27 in October, he is in the middle of his prime and is signed for six more seasons at a $4.5 million cap hit.

When the Leafs start locking up their stars to long-term deals, Zaitsev’s contract is one they will, at the very least, want to move at some point. For the time being, though, he is a player the Leafs are counting on for big minutes – whether he’s productive in them or not.


Notes

– So far, the Leafs are 8-6-2 without Auston Matthews and 32-16-5 with him (which is a 106-point pace). First off, that’s the value of a superstar and how lucky the Leafs were to win that lottery. Also, they have not been completely hopeless without him, and that speaks to the supporting cast they are building around Matthews. In Edmonton, Connor McDavid is on pace for 100 points and they might get the first overall draft pick.

– I was almost surprised to see Mike Babcock ranked fourth in the NHLPA poll for coaches they would most like to play for. Last season, Valtteri Filppula reportedly did not waive his no-trade clause to come to Toronto because he didn’t want to be coached by Babcock again, and there used to be a belief that the Red Wings had trouble signing free agents in part because of the coach and his tough reputation. I think the reality there is more that players did not want to go live in Detroit. Babcock is a tough coach and not necessarily someone that is going to be labeled a ‘players coach’; that will wear thin on some guys, and some will just want to avoid it altogether. But he gets results and players that want to win will want to play for him. Patrick Marleau is a partial example – partial, because the Leafs did offer big money and the extra year to sway him.

– Cool note from Pierre LeBrun: Tomas Kaberle has been helping fellow Czech Tomas Plekanec adjust to life in Toronto. Looking into Plekanec, I did not realize he’s now 14 regular season games away from 1000. The Pittsburgh game was his first as a Leaf where he played under 10 minutes (prior to, his lowest was 11:17), and he was held without a shot on goal for the first time, too. The adjustment has been slow, but at some point it will be worth debating if this is a clear upgrade over Dominic Moore – they each have six goals this season and Moore’s played 17 fewer games.

– Looking at some splits on the team, this stood out: With Bozak, Mitch Marner has been on the ice for 17 goals for and 18 against. With JVR, it’s 13 goals for and 18 against.

With Kadri, Marner has been on the ice 16 for and 13 against, and with Marleau he’s been on for 15 for/14 against.

With Bozak, Connor Brown is up to 16 goals for and nine against (and 14/10 with JVR).

That’s a nice swing in production the Leafs are yielding from those line changes.

Once Matthews returns and the top line reunites, that will give the Leafs three lines on the plus side of scoring. They will then have to figure out who is going to end up on the fourth unit.

– I think this gets lost in the division format sometimes: The Leafs have the third-most points and the third-best goal differential in the Conference. The two teams ahead of them just happen to both be in their division.

– Underrated impact on the Leafs this season: They are tied for 23rd in penalties taken this season. Their penalty kill has been good, but a better way to kill penalties is to just stay out of the box altogether, which they have been relatively good at. However, they also have they 29th most power plays in the league and actually net out with a negative on penalty differential at -8. Good thing they have the third-most even strength goals in the league.

Leo Komarov had a really nice burst of speed for a mini breakaway shorthanded against Pittsburgh in the first. He has improved as the season has gone along (he scored two goals against Buffalo, too). I’ve been wondering all year if the Leafs told him to conserve himself and I do still think that was the case.


Quotes

“You look after the last while, and I know I keep hearing he’s playing all these games, but I look at the schedule and the spacing sometimes and he gets some good breaks, too. To me, it’s real simple: Do you want to play all the games, or not? I’ve never, ever seen a guy who said, “Can I sit out one more, coach?”

– Mike Babcock on Frederik Andersen’s workload

I get what he’s saying, but it’s also the coach’s job to make tough decisions and protect players from themselves. I’ve never heard of a coach who did whatever the players told him to do.

“He’s been great to me, just giving me little tips and stuff, making sure I know that if I want to stay here, this is what I have to do to make sure I stay. He’s just a good guy, that’s what it comes down to. He’s smart, he understands the game and when all that stuff comes together he’s really enjoyable to be coached by.”

– Travis Dermott on Assistant Coach DJ Smith, who was voted in the NHLPA as the next Head Coach in waiting in the league

The Leafs do not allow their assistants to talk to the media. Naturally, the only thing that’s available to us are second-hand accounts of the man. Dermott is perhaps Smith’s biggest project going right now as the Leafs need his help alongside the left-side and Smith has to balance getting him enough ice-time on the third pairing while bringing him along development-wise. Dermott has settled in a bit more recently – certainly not as many flashy rushes in the last few games – and Smith has done a good job of putting him back out there after mistakes and building trust with a good young player.

“(It’s) definitely a little different, especially in our division, with two runaway teams, and we’re pacing right behind them. That’s the challenge of coming in and trying to focus on what you’re doing today, rather than thinking about tomorrow … today was a chance to get better, and that’s the way we’ve got to approach a season like this, because if you start to look too much big picture, you’re going to lose focus on what’s important right now, and that’s to get better today, and recover for Saturday.”

– Frederik Andersen on the Leafs’ precarious position in the standings

Can’t stress it enough: What a weird end to the season coming up. Third in the division seems very likely and first seems completely out of reach. At the same time, this is a legit playoff team. A really good team overall, in fact. Between Tampa, Boston and Toronto, who can stay healthy down the stretch and get hot? That’s where we’re at now.


Video Tidbit of the Week

It wasn’t talked about too much on the broadcast, but I really thought this was a fantastic job by the Leafs pressuring off of a lost faceoff.

Yes, it is easier shorthanded, but we hear teams – including the Leafs – stress winning faceoffs all the time while on the penalty kill. Pittsburgh won this one very clean and the Leafs were ready for that — you can see Kadri almost cheated and was in stride by the time the puck dropped, so he prevented a big wind up and clear, while Rielly raced around the wall.

It almost looked like a set play from that point. It went right over to Marner, who immediately shot for rebound, and Kadri knew what was happening. Usually, Marner shoots for the high-slot tip or to put it in a spot for JVR in front, but that was a pure off-the-far-pad play for a rebound specifically designed to go to Kadri. Nice goal.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1.  I think I would keep that fourth line of Leivo – Plekanec – Kapanen together until Matthews returns. They scored a nice goal, obviously, and Leivo looked comfortable out there. I know it sounds repetitive, but the reality is they are one injury to a winger away from actually counting on him to score. It serves them well to keep him in game shape where possible.

2.  When Matthews does return, I think the fourth line is Komarov – Plekanec – Kapanen. That could be a really nice fourth line and a sure upgrade on the Martin – Boyle – Kapanen line the team was running out in the playoffs last season (which still did damage). That means Marner goes back on the Kadri line, Matthews reunites with his line, and all is well.

3.  I think the Leafs have a good thing going with their penalty killing forwards. At one point, I pushed for slipping skilled guys onto the units on occasion, but they’ve found a bit of a grove here with Komarov – Hyman, Brown – Kapanen, and Plekanec taking faceoffs. With Kapanen in the mix, he adds a dangerous speed element, and you wouldn’t take off Komarov or Hyman anyways. Injecting Kapanen and Plekanec gives the team more of a threat here over players like Gauthier and Moore that were getting that ice time earlier this season.

4.  I think it’s pretty clear that the Leafs defense will be Rielly – Hainsey, Gardiner – Zaitsev, Dermott – Polak. But Carrick has been serviceable and it would be nice to see him get in there. Babcock mentioned the Pittsburgh game might have been Polak’s best game since he arrived in Toronto, and off the top of my head, I’d probably agree. This is the defense for the rest of the year. Carrick is a nice luxury as a seventh.

5.  I think I don’t understand the point of the bye week if the Leafs then have a 10-day stretch in which they play only two games. And yet, this week, the Leafs have three games in four days coming up. What is happening with the schedule here? Not to mention that this season, they’ll have the lowest (or tied for the lowest) amount of home games on Saturday nights in the history of 82-game schedules. They do have fewer back-to-back games this season with 14 (they played 18 last year), but overall, this schedule is really confusing.


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