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Zaitsev leads trio of Maple Leafs rookies flying under the radar

While Matthews, Nylander, and Marner have been garnering fanfare, there’s another triad of Maple Leafs rookies that have been making an impact on the team so far.


The roaring start for the Toronto Maple Leafs dynamic rookie trio of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner has garnered a lot of media attention, and for good reason.

Nylander and Matthews are currently the first and second leading scorers on the team, Marner is tied for third. The last time a Leafs rookie finished in the top three in team scoring was Mike Johnson in 1997-98. The last time multiple Leafs rookies finished top five in team scoring was 1982-83. The last time a rookie led the team in scoring? Syl Apps in the 1936-37 season, 80 years ago.

But while the dazzling trio has been garnering fanfare for filling the net, there’s another triad of rookies that have been making an impact on the team so far this season.

Although Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman are all NHL freshmen, they are older rookies who’ve had more experience playing in the minors and overseas.

“Those are guys you can count on, but they're not kids like those other guys,” said Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "They've gone through it over and over again. They've played in the American league, they've played longer, they know how to play. They're probably not quite as gifted so they've had to play right to get on the ice."

Before signing with Toronto in the summer, Zaitsev spent seven seasons in the KHL. The 25-year-old defenseman led CSKA Moscow in scoring among defensemen last season and has brought that same offensive touch across the Atlantic. He’s tied with Morgan Rielly for the team lead in assists by defensemen with six.

Zaitsev’s passing ability was on display Saturday night when after a faceoff win he carried the puck all the way around the back of the net before feeding Nazem Kadri at the opposite faceoff dot for a one-timer into the open net.

“He moves extremely well, he's a good passer, he's good offensively, but he's very good defensively as well,” said Rielly, who has been paired with Zaitsev on the blueline since Oct. 25.

Through only 12 career NHL games, the young Russian is already second on the team in ice time, averaging more than 22 minutes per game, and leading the Leafs in power play minutes.

And although his Corsi is currently hovering just below the league median, it has been steadily rising ever since he’s been moved to the top pairing with Reilly.

“I think we can both move well and we both enjoy the challenge of playing against the best players on the other team,” Rielly said. “It’s been working well, but we've got room to improve and we want to continue to get better at playing with each other."

Zaitsev hasn’t been the only rookie to move up the depth chart since the start of the season. When veteran left winger Milan Michalek was waived on Oct. 24, Brown went from fourth-line duty to playing on the wing with Kadri and Leo Komarov.

“He's learning how to play with us and I think he brings a lot of speed and he does dirty work that we need him to do,” said Komarov.

Early on, Babcock has entrusted Brown with a heavy defensive workload. The Toronto native is one of the team’s leading penalty killers and is one of three Leafs forwards to start the majority of his even strength possessions in the defensive zone.

Brown’s lone goal and assist don’t quite do justice to the contributions he’s made in the offensive end. Per Sportlogiq, Brown averaged 11.1 loose puck recoveries in the offensive zone per 20 minutes through the first 10 games this season, well above the 8.8 average of NHL forwards.

“I think something I bring is my speed on the forecheck, getting a lot of pucks back and adding a little bit of creativity,” Brown said.

Similarly to Brown, Hyman is also one of the team’s leading penalty killers, and much of his offensive contributions often go unnoticed in the box score while playing on an all-rookie line with Matthews and Nylander.

“I like to get on the forecheck and create space for those two guys,” Hyman said. “They're obviously two really skilled players and if you give them time and space they'll be able to make plays and do things a lot of guys can't do.”

Per Sportlogiq, Matthews averaged three even strength passes received in the slot per-game through the season’s first 10 games, ranking him third among forwards with three or more games played. This shows that Matthews’ line mates have had some success in creating space for him to operate off the puck.

On top of that, Hyman is one of the team’s leaders in Corsi and individual shot attempts.

“In the offensive zone I like to get in front of the net and create havoc, do things like that to help them," Hyman said.

Toronto has a lot of rookies getting important minutes on the ice this season, and that trend will continue as the year wears on. Babcock favorite Nikita Soshnikov recently rejoined the team and already has two points in his first two games of the season. Brendan Leipsic and Kasperi Kapanen have formed a potent duo with the Marlies and are two of the AHL’s leading scorers.

While Matthews, Nylander and Marner will continue to be the main attractions for fans and media alike, the Leafs role-playing rookies and youngsters could be just as pivotal in the team’s success this season and beyond.



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