A full set of news notes will be up tomorrow, and when I say “full,” I mean it! We will have news about the Russian national team as the World Championship approaches, expansion tidings from FOUR different leagues, and the fall-out from the first 48 hours or so of the KHL’s free agent season. On that last note… two of the players to whom we paid particular attention this season were on the move in the last couple of days. Read on, and we’ll discuss briefly those two cases.
First up is the unsurprising move. It has long been rumoured that CSKA Moscow defenceman Nikita Zaitsev would be on his way to North America, and specifically to the Toronto Maple Leafs, for 2016-17. That is now official, and the Maple Leafs are picking up a gem of a blueliner. Zaitsev, now 24 years old, came into the KHL with Sibir Novosibirsk in 2009-10, and moved to CSKA in 2013. His breakout season came in 2014-15, when he scored 12-20-32 and was +27 — all career highs — in 57 games. In 2015-16, his numbers were almost identical when taken per game: 8-18-26 in 46 matches. And Zaitsev had a fine time during CSKA’s run to the Gagarin Cup Final. In the just-completed post-season, he scored 4-9-13 in 20 games, second on his team in points, and led CSKA at +7. And he has become a regular on the Russian national team — we should see him in his country’s colours when the Worlds commence this coming Friday.
Maple Leaf fans will be hoping for more of this kind of thing.
Zaitsev’s contract with Toronto is a one-year deal, reportedly with an out-clause that will allow him to opt to return to the KHL should the Leafs assign him to their farm team. Doubtless there will be some sort of adjustment period in Toronto (Zaitsev has never played a season on North American-sized ice, for one thing), but he is amply good enough to figure out the NHL game in fairly short order. It will be a surprise if Zaitsev does not do well. For CSKA, of course, his absence will leave a massive hole, although at least they have had time to prepare for it. It will be most interesting to see who the old Red Army team brings in to replace their departing blue-line star.
The other move involving one of our players of interest does come as something as surprise, mostly because of where he’s going. Young defenceman Ziyat Paigin, who just turned 21 in February, wrote one of the KHL’s big stories of 2015-16, but it started inauspiciously with his hometown Ak Bars Kazan team. There, Paigin played but eight games, scoring a single assist and averaging less than eight minutes of ice-time per contest, before being sent away to Ak Bars’ VHL farm club (he scored five points in ten minor-league games). And then he was traded to HK Sochi, and took off like a rocket.
In 37 games for the Black Sea club, Paigin scored 9-18-27; his 28 points overall tied him for 12th among KHL defencemen. His ice-time shot up to better than 17 minutes per match. He played in the KHL all-star game, and was called up to (and scored for) the Russian national side. Perhaps most impressively, he helped drive HK Sochi to a fourth place finish in the KHL’s West Conference. As career turnarounds go, Paigin’s was stunning in both its speed and unlikeliness.
All of which makes it somewhat surprising that he will be heading back to Ak Bars Kazan for 2016-17. The return in the trade is monetary, which makes some sense; Sochi badly need the cash, and Paigin has certainly increased his value since he left Kazan in October. However, it is going to be very interesting to see how Ak Bars use him, and whether he can maintain, at least to some extent, the progress he made in Sochi (young d-men do not develop in a straight line, so some fall-back is to be expected, or at least not cause for alarm). In any case, watching with particular nervousness will be the Edmonton Oilers, who selected Paigin in the final round of the 2015 NHL draft.
As mentioned, full news notes will be along on Tuesday, so do check back, and thank you for reading!