Update: Nikita Zaitsev has asked for a trade.
After a difficult season, TOR and Nikita Zaitsev are working together to find him a fresh start. He is available and we will see where it goes.— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) May 30, 2019
Nikita Zaitsev, arguably one of the most successful European free agent signings ever, is not well liked by fans of the Maple Leafs. His 2018-2019 season wasn’t great, although his play with Jake Muzzin was better than with any other partner during his time on the Leafs. That hasn’t helped his image, though.
Zaitsev has been used primarily in a defensive, tough-minutes role, and his mild ability to assist in offence disappeared in that usage. Put that with a less than stellar set of defensive results (although his Expected Goals Against are about team average) and that’s a recipe for dislike. Dislike turns into the sport of noticing every mistake and glossing over every success, particularly in a big market like Toronto.
In his traditional Russian interview post-season, Zaitsev talked about how that sort of thing goes on, even with Muzzin:
“Everyone said that the defense of Toronto was shit,” he explains. “Everybody wanted Muzzin. But he began to be smeared the next day. You just need to understand that this is Toronto. You will be [criticized] anyway, because you are a defender.”
In Russia, Zaitsev is a star, and considered a very good defenceman. He plays on the National team in the top four, and he’s good at it. On the Leafs, he’s not jumping up into the offence, or anchoring the power play like he does there, and the opportunities to play to his strengths — he carries the puck much better than he passes — have never materialized in Toronto.
When he was signed, I was skeptical that his neutral zone play in Russia would translate to the high-pressure NHL, and it hasn’t. But he also simply doesn’t fit the systems. And while Mike Babcock is usually inclined to tailor the system to the player, no one could come up with a plan that Zaitsev could execute well enough to justify his salary.
And that’s the other problem:
I liked this deal when it was signed. Well, liked is too strong a word. I understood it. The Leafs, desperate for someone to play the right side, were competing with the money CSKA could offer him to not leave the KHL, and credible reports had that salary offer pegged at more than this.
The result was a lot of cap hit relative to the return in results, but it does have an interesting base salary and signing bonus structure. It always looked to me like the plan was to buy him out in the summer of 2022 or 2023. Right now, if the Leafs succeed in trading him, his new team is on the hook for only $1.5 million this season, although the cap hit is $4.5 million, and his cash salary rebounds to $4.5 million again without the Leafs paying his signing bonus.
If the Leafs succeed, that is.
They will gain some cap space and a problem, if they do. They need someone to play Zaitsev’s minutes, and while that already is Jake Muzzin to some extent — he sort of straddles the line between who Jake Gardiner is and who Zaitsev is — he can’t be everywhere at once.
If Muzzin can pick up the more defensively-focused and PK time that Zaitsev has been playing (over his head, and over his pay rate, it should be noted) then maybe we should all get ready to roll out the blue carpet for Colin Miller. Miller, who is said to be available, and who has a cap hit less than $4 million, is more Travis Dermott in adult form than anything like Zaitsev. That still leaves a hole to fill on defence, in terms of usage and manpower numbers, but it also leaves (theoretically) some small scraps of cap space to shovel into the hole.
Because the next question is: who takes Ron Hainsey’s defensively-focused and PK time?
We’ll see where this goes.
It was Nikita Zaitsev who, for personal reasons, asked TOR today to try to facilitate a trade. He has five years remaining on a contract with an AAV of $4.5M. TOR will try to oblige Zaitsev but are not in a salary cap position to retain much, if any, salary.— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) May 30, 2019
Dubas agrees there is a move to get Zaitsev ‘a fresh start’, but no guarantee he leaves.— Lance Hornby (@sunhornby) May 30, 2019
Since the league was made aware this morning of Zaitsev’s availability, there have been multiple inquiries but it remains to be seen how many teams expect TOR to retain salary or make a soft/limited return deal because of the term/$ owed him.— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) May 30, 2019
Zaitsev asked for a trade (the role he has is not satisfying him, AFAIK, because he's much more versatile), but would be OK to stay in #LeafsForever He has a list of 10 teams where he won't go https://t.co/4ayDOp7iVB— Igor Eronko (@IgorEronko) May 30, 2019
Eronko translates the Russian for us, but the original tweeter seems to have spoken to Zaitsev or his agent.
It is true that on July 1, after the signing bonus is paid, Zaitsev’s 10-team list no trade clause kicks in, but it’s only 10 teams, and when you request the trade, you might be inclined to waive it.