Zaitsev has long been considered one of the top young defencemen outside of the NHL. This past year in the KHL with CSKA Moscow he recorded eight goals and 26 points in 46 regular season games before chipping in with 13 points in 20 playoff games. His playoff total tied him for the lead among KHL blueliners. He is a two-time KHL All-Star with 95 points in 317 career KHL games.
While there are always questions surrounding young players -- particularly defencemen -- who move over to North America from Europe, the Maple Leafs feel confident that Zaitsev will be an instant fit within their scheme as a top-four defender.
Typing 'Nikita Zaitsev' into YouTube is a nice introduction to what he can do on the ice, but the reasons for thinking he'll be an effective NHLer extend beyond the rink.
"Having the opportunity to meet him, meet his family, watch him play and listen to this young man speak," said Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello when asked about why he believes Zaitsev will be able to make the adjustment.
"The maturity he has, the command of the English language is exceptional and also the student of the National Hockey League in knowing the players and knowing as much as he possibly could about the Toronto Maple Leafs."
As a player, Zaitsev is might be most conveniently described as a two-way defenceman with a good offensive skillset. He is a strong skater and makes a good first pass out of the defensive zone and, over his time in the KHL, he has also been used as a weapon on the power play. As a right-handed shooter with a good shot, he is a precious commodity for an NHL blueline and a player Leafs scouts have had their eye on for years.
Zaitsev was the potential prize for a number of NHL teams who courted him. That he chose the Maple Leafs is another good sign for both the organization and its fans as the team continues to build.
"Him selecting Toronto says a lot. He's one of the top young defencemen in the KHL, he has had tremendous success, played on a championship team, been an all-star, played in the World Championships and will presently play there," said Lamoriello. "We feel he'll be an addition and I think that with the two situations that have taken place over the last couple of days, everyone should feel pretty good."
Those looking to see Zaitsev in action before the NHL pre-season will have the opportunity when he suits up for the host Russian team at the 2016 World Championships. The tournament kicks off on May 6 when Zaitsev and Russia take on the Czech Republic.