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Toronto signs KHL's top blueliner Zaitsev
3 мая 2016 года. Mirtle, James. The Globe and Mail

On Saturday, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the NHL's draft lottery and claimed the No. 1 overall pick, which could solve their No. 1-centre problem in short order if they take Auston Matthews in June.

Two days later, they added another player who can likely step right into their lineup and help next season.

The Leafs announced the longrumoured signing of Russian defenceman Nikita Zaitsev on Monday afternoon. Zaitsev, 24, is a late-bloomer who was never drafted into the NHL but has developed into the best defenceman in the KHL with league powerhouse CSKA Moscow.

He had 26 points in 46 games this season, which put him in the top 10 in points per game among defencemen.

Zaitsev's deal with the Leafs is a one-year entry-level contract, as those are the only terms permitted given his age. He'll make under $1-million (U.S.) in base salary before becoming a restricted free agent in July 2017.

Those who know his abilities well believe Zaitsev is worthy of a chance in the NHL.

"He's a great skater," said former NHL defenceman Ryan Whitney, who played against Zaitsev during the 2014-15 season. "Very smooth. He's not overly physical at all but great with his stick and his head's up always." Two of Zaitsev's strengths, Whitney said, are breaking the puck out of his own end and getting shots on net through traffic.

"It's a different game - big time - in the NHL, but he's an interesting player," Whitney added.

The Leafs take on little risk in bringing Zaitsev over, given the terms of his contract. Toronto has a glaring need for top-four defencemen - especially righthand shots - and there will be opportunity for Zaitsev to play key minutes next season.

The only Leafs defencemen locked in for those minutes currently are Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, who both prefer to play the left side.

The rest of Toronto's blueline consists of one depth veteran in Matt Hunwick and younger defencemen such as Martin Marincin, Connor Carrick, Frank Corrado, Scott Harrington and Stuart Percy, who will compete for the remaining jobs.

It's unknown how well Zaitsev can fill that hole. Some older undrafted KHL players such as Artemi Panarin with the Chicago Blackhawks, have excelled in the NHL, while others such as Evgeny Medvedev and Anton Belov failed to make much of an impact.

Leafs fans can get a better look at both Matthews (USA) and Zaitsev (Russia) when coverage of the World Championship in St. Petersburg begins later this week.

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