The Toronto Maple Leafs need to re-evaluate the Nikita Zaitsev experiment.
It’s no secret that the Toronto Maple Leafs defensive core hasn’t been great this season. The second defensive pairing has been the most atrocious.
Currently, Mike Babcock has Jake Gardiner and Zaitsev as team’s top pairing 5v5, playing not just the most minutes, but BY FAR the hardest. In a season that’s only five games old, the fact that they are getting only 35% of their starts in the o-zone (vs about 60% for everyone else) has had a big impact on their numbers.
You can’t look at the bad numbers they’re putting up and completely ignore the fact they’re playing the toughest minutes, but at the same time, the Leafs are allowing way too many shots and goals against, so an adjustment should be considered.
I think that adjustment should be to get Jake Gardiner a new partner.
Gardiner was outstanding last year, as one of 16 NHL defenseman to score 50 points, and despite his reputation for giveaways, he always has strong defensive impacts on the game over a season. In 82 games played, he registered 5 goals and 47 assists, and he led the Leafs in ice-time while clearly being Mike Babcock’s favorite.
On the other hand, Zaitsev has been nothing but abysmal. In 5 games played, the 26 year old Moscow, Russia native has registered 1 assist and 23:11 minutes per game. His stats are skewed by the massive amount of defensive zone starts he’s getting, but at the same time, the pairing hasn’t been effective and you’re not moving Gardiner off it, leaving only one choice.
Just by looking at his statistics and comparing them to last season, you’ll see that Mike Babcock is giving him a lot more ice time and is having him start in the defensive zone a lot more than the past. Babcock’s strategy of giving Zaitsev more ice time and having him start in the defensive zone more often isn’t working. Unfortunately, it’s just making Zaitsev look a lot worse.
How To Move Forward
If I were in Babcock’s shoes, I would completely re-do the defensive pairings. The Leafs are in the bottom half of the league in defensive stats, and have hung Andersen and Sparks out to dry in nearly every game so far, so I’d be looking to improve my top pairing.
In Zaitsev’s place, I’d have Travis Dermott play alongside Gardiner. Currently, Dermott is being featured on the third defensive pairing, but should be moved up in the lineup as he is clearly on his way to being a very good, possible great player.
Prior to the game against the Detroit Red Wings, Paul Hendrick of the Leafs Nation Network had tweeted out that Babcock was looking to feature Dermott on the right side and have Martin Marincin play on the left. While that didn’t necessarily happen, the fact that Babcock is considering having Dermott play on the right is an intriguing idea.
If you look at his possession statistics, Dermott has arguably been the best Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman. Yes, you can argue that Morgan Rielly has been the best and you would be right, but Rielly has been outstanding in the offensive zone. While Dermott has been outstanding in terms of possession. After 5 games played, Dermott leads Maple Leafs defenseman in CF% and yet has a very low ATOI. Due to Dermott’s performance, it’s time for Babcock to give him a shot on the second line and give him more ice time. (But keep in mind these are small samples and things like zone starts have more effect on statistics the smaller the sample size).
Hopefully, Babcock sees the potential in Dermott on the second defensive pairing and decides to give him a shot to play with Gardiner. Worst case, it doesn’t work out and Babcock re-adjusts his lines.
Bottom line: Nikita Zaitsev isn’t a top pairing NHL defenseman and the Toronto Maple Leafs need a better player in his spot.
stats from NHL.com and hockey-reference.com and naturalstattrick.com