Toronto Maple Leafs: Time To Split Gardiner and Zaitsev

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 18: Jake Gardiner
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 18: Jake Gardiner /

Although the Toronto Maple Leafs have improved defensively upon last season, it is blatantly obvious that the pairing of Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev is not working.

If you had to ask any Toronto Maple Leafs fan at the beginning of the season which pair worried them the most, the answer likely would have been Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey. Since they are hands-down the Leafs best pair so far this season, Gardiner and Zaitsev seem to be blamed for a lot of the Leafs defensive blunders.

Granted, Mike Babcock has deployed them in the defensive zone more often than last season, and they play more minutes at even-strength. However, both players continue to make defensive mistakes, something that shouldn’t be happening with the Leafs most heavily relied-on pair.

PDO & Corsi

At first glance, it might appear to the naked eye that they are just plain unlucky. Unfortunately, that does not explain the pair’s poor play. In fact, they’re luckier than Rielly and Hainsey, with less to show for it (in points and performance).

However, for players who lead the Leafs in ice time, their possession numbers are rotten. That usually doesn’t bode well for overall performance. So far this season, Zaitsev has 48.6 CF%. Gardiner is even lower at 47.7 CF%.

It’s especially surprising to see Gardiner with such low CF% because he was the one Leaf last season who had consistently positive possession. Last season, he finished with 52.6 CF%, but he did play the majority of games with Connor Carrick, who is also typically a positive possession player.

Is Zaitsev the Problem?

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The numbers don’t lie, but neither does their performance on-ice. The puzzling thing is why they have remained together, but it might be because Babcock doesn’t trust Polak, Carrick, or Borgman to play more minutes in games.

Another problem is that Zaitsev does not seamlessly fit into the Leafs top four. He has not been able to play well with both Rielly and Gardiner. Since both Rielly and Gardiner play the left side, it is not difficult to see that the Leafs signed Zaitsev to play with one of them.

The extended stint last season of Rielly-Zaitsev was so detrimental to both players that fans started doubting Rielly’s ability to play hockey, let alone defense. Rielly has refuted that this season with a stronger performance (and a more complementary partner).

When Gardiner played with Carrick, both players flourished. It doesn’t take a genius to see that they may benefit from being paired together again. Zaitsev appears to be dragging down Gardiner’s performance this season, just like he did with Rielly last year.

Time for Change

Zaitsev hasn’t worked with Rielly. He clearly doesn’t work with Gardiner either. With Zaitsev signed until 2024, the Leafs should look into exactly what is going on and how to fix it, preferably sooner rather than towards the end of his contract.

Unfortunately, Babcock refuses to split that pair, even though the change could do both players some good.

Reuniting Gardiner with Carrick would be a good place to start. It would get Carrick back into the lineup and give Gardiner a fresh start, but with some familiarity.

It would be interesting to see if Zaitsev would play well with Hainsey (this does also raise the question of who Rielly plays with, though) since they haven’t looked too bad on the penalty kill together.

Given Babcock’s lineup decisions as of late, there probably won’t be any drastic changes anytime soon. We’ll probably be stuck watching Zaitsev and Gardiner play together for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, the pair can figure out a way to get going (or at least figure out what they’re doing in the defensive zone).

But it’s going to be a long season if they can’t.

Next: Field Trip to the ACC

Statistics from Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick, & Corsica Hockey.