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Context is Key in Examining Rumoured Zaitsev Deal

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The sticker shock is real, but did the Leafs have a choice?

NHL: Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

When news broke Thursday evening that the Leafs were close to finalizing a seven-year, $4.5M AAV extension with Nikita Zaitsev, I think the general reaction was one of shock. Zaitsev has been a key cog in a solid Leafs team, but no one would have predicted that he’d be the recipient of a seven-year extension off the back of a single NHL season. But then, Zaitsev isn’t in a typical situation. And his situation informs the context through which we must examine this deal.

To start, I should say this. I’m incredibly wary of this deal. That wariness is almost exclusively due to the term, not the AAV. Any time you commit seven years to someone who isn’t the among the very best at their position, it’s scary. That’s a long time for things to potentially go wrong, especially if the extension takes the player into the declining part of his career. For Zaitsev, if it’s signed, this extension will carry him through to his age 32 season. We should expect some decline in his play over that period; it’s the severity of that decline that’s the question, and that will likely be the ultimate factor in whether this contract is a good one.

There’s been some literature that attempts quantifying the aging curve. A recent post at HockeyGraphs which measures performance by Wins Above Replacement (WAR) concludes that players peak early, but also don’t lose a large portion of their ability until their early 30s. To that end, on average, at age 32, a player is typically 0.6 wins worse than their peak. For those unaware of the WAR stat, here’s a link to the methodology. The short version is that it’s an attempt to fully capture a players’ value and quantify it relative to a readily available replacement (hence the ‘Above Replacement’ name).

If we look at defensemen specifically, we can use this old CanucksArmy post as a guideline, which used the now-defunct War-on-Ice version of Goals Above Replacement (GAR) - conceptually, this is the same thing as the WAR stat I mentioned above. The only difference in the concept is in the units - goals versus wins. They found something similar - while defencemen do peak early, they’re not falling off the face of the earth as soon as they turn 28. Age 32 seems to be the season where things really start to go bad, at least based on the chart below:

Based on the above charts and links, it’s clear that the Leafs should be expecting some decrease in Zaitsev’s play. While it’s always tricky to apply aging curves (which are averages) to individuals, what we’re seeing now is likely close to his peak, and he’s expected to experience notable drop-off throughout the life of his contract. There’s a lot of risk, as there is in any seven year deal.

But the Leafs aren’t taking on this risk just for kicks. As alluded to, Zaitsev is in a unique situation. It’s been made relatively clear that he has interest in playing in two places: Toronto or Moscow. He only wanted to come to Toronto last year, and we’ve seen no indication that he’s changed his mind. And as a star in the KHL, he would be in line to receive a fat contract there. As far as the NHL goes, he also would be a UFA after next season, so any long-term deal needs to buy significant amounts of his prime salary-earning years. As a result, he has leverage that a typical RFA doesn’t.

The retort to that claim is you either negotiate him down, or call his bluff and try and replace him. After all, it’s not worth making a bad deal just because you don’t have all the leverage. That’s how you end up trading Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson. My counter is: what options do the Leafs have?

The fact of the matter is, Zaitsev came into a new league and was immediately asked to play top-pairing minutes on a team lacking a prototypical ‘#1 defenseman’. He’s faced a disproportionate number of top lines, according to the below graphic from HockeyViz.com.

Is he cut out for that role? No, probably not. But he’s fulfilled it relatively well, horrific on-ice save percentage aside. Against this competition, his score and venue adjusted CF% is 50.28%. Include zone adjustments, and it moves up to 51.2%, which is right in line with the team average (per Corsica.hockey). And an obvious reminder - there is more to a player than CorsiRel. Zaitsev has also quarterbacked one of the league’s best power play units, played significant minutes shorthanded, and has the hidden value of not taking many penalties, especially for a defenseman. More obviously, he records 0.5 primary points per 60 minutes at 5v5, which is on the border of top-pairing play for individual offense. To that end, Dawson Sprigings’ GAR stat (used in the first aging curve linked in this piece), has Zaitsev ranked 41st among defensemen this season*. This is largely driven by the skills mentioned above - in particular his ability to not take penalties, and his even strength offense.

That’s not to say he’s perfect - his GAR overrates him a touch, in my opinion, but it says something that he’s in that class of player. As a ballpark, it shows that he’s almost certainly a guy who can excel on your second pairing, and play on your first in a pinch.

That has real value, especially to the Leafs. Since Zaitsev plays a position of weakness for the Leafs (RD), and one that is scarce across the league, he ends up being in a strong spot with negotiations, even omitting his unique background and the leverage it provides. If the Leafs balk at his demands, how do they fill his roster spot?

Maybe they get Kevin Shattenkirk, he takes Zaitsev’s spot for a few million more and the same amount of years, and the Leafs end up okay. If that doesn’t happen... well, I hope you’re looking forward to the Karl Alzner era? This is a shockingly weak free agent class, especially on defense. There isn’t a potential free agent acquisition who’d be a reasonable facsimile for what Zaitsev provides, Shattenkirk excepted.

So maybe Toronto pokes at the trade market? Well, all we’ve heard since last July is how teams refuse to trade defencemen for less than a king’s ransom now. Maybe they can swing a deal for one of Anaheim’s guys, or Jacob Trouba, or whoever. More likely, they can’t, not without giving up significant resources, and likely a similar cap hit for that player.

The last option is going with a short-term placeholder, and rolling over the decision for a year. Maybe wait for a trade target to pop up, or a stronger free agent class. This is the typical response when you’re put in a place with less-than-stellar options. Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, right?

The problem is, this isn’t poker. We don’t have a stack of chips that we can bleed dry while waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. In fact, we have three resources that will all vanish in the next three seasons: Nylander, Marner, and Matthews on ELCs. Each of them is providing more than $5M in surplus value, and the Leafs’ best chance to win a Cup likely comes either next year or the year after, with either all three players or the latter two still not being paid what they’d be worth in a free market. They can’t afford to roll a year over and waste three of the most valuable non-McDavid contracts in the league. Their options were to sign Zaitsev or replace him for next year.

Zaitsev’s agent is no fool. If I can deduce that, so can he. And the result looks to be a contract that probably leans more towards what Zaitsev’s camp wants than what the Leafs’ camp wants. It’s a deal to be nervous about, for sure. But it’s not inexplicable, and it’s not necessarily an awful deal either. You just have to look at it in context.