The Toronto Maple Leafs continued to pick up bodies for their rebuild today, signing KHL defenseman Nikita Zaitsev to a one-year deal. This move has been long-rumored, but now that it's official, the question becomes one of expectation.
Sure, Zaitsev was a top blueliner in the KHL, but does that mean anything for his NHL potential?
As with all things Russia-NHL related, this will be a mystery until the puck drops in September. Zaitsev is a good skater with decent size and at 24 years old, he's at the age where defensemen really start to make an impact. One reason he has stayed in the KHL so long is that he reportedly wanted to step right into the NHL and not muck about in the minors. This is similar to what I'm hearing about New York Rangers prospect Pavel Buchnevich, who is expected to finally arrive on American shores for the 2016-17 campaign.
And I get the logic there. But I'm also dubious about how easy it will be for Zaitsev, an undrafted player whom teams passed on several years in a row, to make an impact right away. Remember Evgeny Medvedev last summer? He was a big-time KHLer and he got hyped up by pundits before finally signing with Philadelphia. The Flyers scratched him for all but one of their final 20 games this year, including all of their playoff tilts against Washington. Now, Medvedev is older than Zaitsev, but the hype was similar.
Expectations for Zaitsev should be realistic. With a one-year deal, he needs to prove himself right away, but from scouts I've talked to, he's probably a bottom pairing guy at best – and given how threadbare Toronto's defense corps is, he'll likely get a better shot there than he would have on a deeper lineup. Other teams have been scouting him and they're not torn up about losing the recruiting battle.
If the Maple Leafs can accept that Zaitsev is a depth guy, then this is a fine signing. Heck, anytime you can add a roster player without expending a draft pick, the bottom line for success is pretty low. And if he can carry the success he had with CSKA Moscow this season over to the NHL? Obviously that's a coup for the Maple Leafs.
Toronto Fans can watch Zaitsev play for Russia at the World Championship, which starts this week in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Auston Matthews will be there for Team USA, so maybe he can do a little scouting for his future franchise, too.