Cage Match: Jaccob Slavin vs. Nikita Zaitsev

by Rick Roos on September 20, 2017

Nikita Zaitsev - USA TODAY Sports Images


On tap this week is another battle inspired by the DobberHockey Fantasy GuideNikita Zaitsev versus Jaccob Slavin, whom the Guide predicts will post the exact same number of points this season (sorry, no spoilers on what that point total is; you have to buy the Guide to find out!) Will a deep dive Cage Match analysis support that they’re fantasy equals, or instead will one reveal himself as the better fantasy option for this season and down the road? Let’s dive in and find out!


Career Path and Contract Status

Zaitsev, who turns 26 next month, was undrafted but linked to the Maple Leafs after he impressed with 32 points in the KHL in 2014-15. It turns out where there was smoke there was indeed fire, as Zaitsev signed a one-year entry level deal with Toronto in May 2016. He then proceeded to make the team out of camp, play in all 82 games, and finish among the top 40 scoring NHL d-men with 36 points.

Slavin, 23, was drafted, but not until 120th overall in 2012 after his second season of USHL hockey. In one more USHL campaign he tallied 33 points in 62 games, then transitioned to college hockey for two seasons, compiling 42 total points in 66 total games. Although Slavin began 2015-16 in the AHL, his stint there was brief and he ended up producing 20 points in 62 games for the Hurricanes. This past season he topped that to the tune of 34 points in 82 games for Carolina, finishing just below Zaitsev in league rearguard scoring.

Both players signed seven year deals this spring. Zaitsev’s counting $4.5M against the cap per year and kicking in this season, while Slavin’s comes with a $5.3M annual cap hit but doesn’t commence until 2018-19, with his current ELC counting $0.742 against the cap for 2017-18.


Ice Time


Total Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

PP Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

SH Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)


22:01 (N.Z.) – 2nd

23:26 (J.S.) – 1st

2:00 (N.Z.) – 2nd

0:55 (J.S.) – 3rd

1:43 (N.Z.) – 5th

3:07 (J.S.) – 1st


20:59 (J.S.) – 3rd

0:51 (J.S.) – 6th

2:06 (J.S.) – 2nd


Zaitsev’s Total Ice Time was much higher than I’d expected. In fact, it was high enough to be the most among any rookie defenseman in the past three seasons. Yet it still put him behind Morgan Rielly and, suboptimally, his PP Time trailed Jake Gardiner while his SH Time was nearly 90 seconds higher per game than Gardiner’s. So his Ice Time, although solid, is not ideal with respect to his fellow rearguards.

Also, when it was crunch time for the Leafs both at the end of the season and in the playoffs, Zaitsev had several games with lower than average Ice Time, although that could’ve reflected his rookie status rather than a concern going forward. In short, between his Ice Time and the team not signing him to a bridge contract, it looks as though Zaitsev is well regarded by the Leafs; however, if he stays situationally stuck behind Rielly and Gardiner, that would be far from ideal.

Meanwhile, Slavin clearly impressed Carolina brass as a rookie, since his Ice Time spiked to become the highest among all team rearguards as just a 22-year-old NHL sophomore. Yet of the 2:27 he gained from 2015-16 to 2016-17, a full minute was on the PK. Plus, his 3:07 average SH Time per game for 2016-17 put him seventh among all NHL defensemen last season, and given that his ample shorthanded Time helped lead the Hurricanes to the sixth best penalty kill rate in the NHL (matching their standing from 2015-16), chances are the team won’t be looking to change the status quo there.

No big deal though - Slavin scored 34 points and he’s young and still improving; he can produce despite his deployment, right? Wrong, at least according to past precedent. Since 2010-11, there’ve been 80 instances of a rearguard averaging more than 3:00 of SH Ice Time and less than 1:00 of PP Time per game in the same season, and none posted 35+ points. Of course hope could come in the form of added PP Time; however, that seems unlikely because the Hurricanes are one of an increasing number of teams relying upon a four forward PP1, leaving Slavin likely to have to settle for PP2 scraps, unless somehow he produced especially well in the limited PP Time he received. We’ll check on that next.


Secondary Categories



(per game)


(per game)

Blocked Shots (per game)


(per game)

PP Points

(per game)


0.46 (N.Z.)

0.14 (J.S.)

2.14 (N.Z.)

0.42 (J.S.)

1.66 (N.Z.)

1.96 (J.S.)

1.29 (N.Z.)

1.20 (J.S.)

0.14 (N.Z.)

0.05 (J.S.)


0.12 (J.S.)

0.65 (J.S.)

1.88 (J.S.)

1.33 (J.S.)

0.06 (J.S.)


Slavin’s PP scoring rate wasn’t dismal on a per minute basis as compared to those ahead of him on the PP depth chart. The issue is he only managed the same number of PPPts in 2016-17 (four) as he did in 19 fewer games in 2015-16 while actually seeing his per game PP Time inch upward ever so slightly. That’s not a recipe for more PP Time.

On top of that, there’s Slavin’s horrible SOG rate. His failure to fire even 100 SOG in 82 games last season is concerning, becasue of the 97 defensemen since 2010-11 to play 80+ games in a season while firing fewer than 100 SOG only eight even managed to top 30 points and a mere two bested Slavin’s 34 from last season (Nick Leddy’s 37 in 2011-12, and T.J. Brodie’s 36 last season). Moreover, we see that Slavin’s SOG rate dropped despite a gain of 2:27 in Ice Time per game from 2015-16 to 2016-17, which is not a trend that bodes well at all.

Zaitsev is a far better option in two of the three “rough and tumble” multi-cat areas, yet I’m surprised his SOG rate is barely above Slavin’s. While that brings with it concerns along the lines of those noted above for Slavin and likewise should be monitored closely by poolies, it’s an at least somewhat different situation because Zaitsev nevertheless was able to receive ample PP Time despite his SOG shortcomings. Plus, unlike Slavin this was Zaitsev’s first NHL season and he could be in line to see his SOG rate increase with his rookie campaign under his belt.


Luck-Based Metrics


Team Shooting % (5x5)

Individual Points % (IPP)

Offensive Zone Starting % (5x5)

Secondary Assists %


7.95% (N.Z.)

9.15% (J.S.)

39.1% (N.Z.)

38.6% (J.S.)

45.3% (N.Z.)

47.5% (J.S.)

59% (N.Z.)

51% (J.S.)


6.93% (J.S.)

42.6% (J.S.)

50.1% (J.S.)

61% (J.S.)


Here the news is worse overall for Zaitsev, whose 59% secondary assists rate suggests some of his 36 points might have been lucked into, and who scored those 36 points despite a pretty low OZ%. On the other hand, some of that arguably unsustainable good luck is mitigated by him sporting a low team shooting % compared to the average – 9.0% - for NHL skaters. Slavin’s team shooting percentage was above that threshold, yet despite Slavin’s significant SH Time he still had a decent OZ% deployment and managed his 34 points even though his IPP dropped from his rookie figure, so clearly he has skill and some scoring prowess. Overall, neither player had excessively good or bad luck.


Who Wins?

I’ll get to the winner in a bit. But first I think it bears mentioning how I reached my conclusion, since that in and of itself has fantasy ramifications which can extend beyond this specific match-up. Choosing a winner boiled down to focusing not just on fantasy numbers, but also on value in the real world and how that affects fantasy perception and cost. After all, if hypothetical Player A and Player B have essentially identical stats but it would cost more – in draft or trade – to obtain Player A than Player B, that means Player B should be the winner of a cage match between them.

Why is all this relevant? Slavin has very significant real-world value and is already recognized in NHL circles as an important player for his team. But when it comes to fantasy hockey, Slavin’s real world value becomes a double whammy, leading to subpar fantasy deployment (i.e., significant SH Time and very little PP Time only on PP2) but also raising his profile to an extent that, by association, his fantasy cost is likely inflated. Sure enough, as of Monday September 18th, Slavin was being picked roughly five spots ahead of Zaitsev in Yahoo fantasy drafts and 22 spots prior to Zaitsev in ESPN leagues.

When a very good rearguard like Slavin receives extensive accolades for his real-world skill and impact, while at the same time having a solid scoring output while still young and early in his NHL career, the first instinct of poolies naturally becomes to think real-world talent plus points signifies a player who’s bound to continue improving his production. But unfortunately, Slavin strikes me as poised to be the next Mattias Ekholm, Travis Hamonic, Francois Beauchemin, or Marc-Edouard Vlasic – a skilled real world rearguard whose fantasy stock rose too high based on posting 34+ points (or at a 34+ point full season pace) within one’s first three NHL seasons. After all, much like what has occurred with these other d-men, Slavin has a seemingly impossible path to receiving plentiful PP Time and is likely to stay saddled with ample SH duty, especially given’s Carolina’s PK success.

This makes Zaitsev the winner, although make no mistake - he’s not a top prize. Jake Gardiner seems to be the more favored Leafs defenseman when it comes to offensive deployment. Morgan Rielly, although stuck for the time being in a role that’s not conductive to scoring, looks to be cut from a cloth that will eventually shift his role to one more along the lines of a Ryan Suter, Alex Pietrangelo, or Drew Dougthy, namely a minute-eating but still very productive franchise defenseman.

That leaves Zaitsev as a third banana (or, I suppose, a double second banana) of sorts; however, third defenseman bananas on high scoring teams can still have fantasy value – in some rare instances plenty of value (the 2008-09 Red Wings had three d-men score 51+ points). Don’t mistake that for me saying Zaitsev could be on tap to hit 50+ any time soon or even at any point at all; however, a rising tide does tend to lift all boats, which means when a team scores lots of goals – as the Leafs figure to do – there will be many points to share among players, including d-men.

Long story short, in the future look for Zaitsev to be near the 40 point mark, with a better chance of inching above 40 than below 35. Slavin probably will manage to stay at or near the 30 point mark due to the improving Canes team around him, but is highly unlikely to sniff 35+ except in a fluke type of year ala what Vlasic did in 2015-16.

Should Gardiner leave as a UFA in 2019, Zaitsev stands to see a spike in his production, so don’t lose sight of that in keepers. On the other hand, barring a trade, Slavin’s impediments to better offensive deployment – Faulk and Hanifin – will be around through 2021. Moreover, by then Carolina could have other players (like Jake Bean) positioned to take those minutes rather than having Slavin step into them, much like San Jose’s rearguard puck movers have come and gone (i.e., Christian Ehrhoff, Dan Boyle, and now Brent Burns) throughout the years yet all the while Vlasic’s role and deployment have essentially stayed the same.




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