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Should the Leafs really trade Nikita Zaitsev?

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The first rule of asset management is don’t sell low.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins - Game Seven Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

With the news that Nikita Zaitsev asked the Leafs to trade him and that the Maple Leafs informed the league they’re open to making a deal, the question becomes, should they do that?

Hell yes!

You say that now, and many Leafs fans have, but the question is not “Do you like Zaitsev” or “Are there better defencemen” it’s “Should the Leafs, now at this time, make this deal?”

The obvious answer is if he isn’t happy on the team for whatever reason, then it’s best to part ways, but that ignores the cost of moving a player on a difficult contract when his value is low. That’s when fans want to see a trade, and the ones they hate are the trades where a player just ripening into his peak is moved out, but you get a lot more in return for the perfect, juicy and ripe peach than you do for the “naturally imperfect” one.

Your emotions are not supposed to get in the way of asset value considerations, or so say the people who’ve watched Moneyball too many times. But Kyle Dubas is the kind of GM who is unlikely to tell a player to suck it up and play. Or so he seems.

While I think Bourne makes a valid point, Zaitsev isn’t a free agent, he’s a player who already has too much term, and a bit too much in AAV, and that’s a hard trade to make.

Here’s the problem, as I see it. Say you trade Zaitsev for a second round pick. Then what happens?

The team gets better! Addition by subtaction!

Nice theory.

That’s one fact. Here’s another:

HockeyViz

This shows total ice time last season. So cross out Jake Gardiner, and then Ron Hainsey and then Zaitsev, and remember that Travis Dermott is injured with a return time that might mean he doesn’t miss any time, and might not.

But wait, there’s more:

HockeyViz

This shows that, after Gardiner, who is gone, Zaitsev was used the most when the Leafs were holding a thin lead of one or two goals. And then there’s this:

Penalty Kill Ice Time Maple Leafs 2018-2019 Regular Season

Player GP TOI TOI/GP
Player GP TOI TOI/GP
Nikita Zaitsev 81 230.62 2.85
Ron Hainsey 81 229.75 2.84
Jake Muzzin 30 43.88 1.46
Martin Marincin 24 34.35 1.43
Morgan Rielly 82 88.17 1.08
Travis Dermott 64 67.28 1.05
Jake Gardiner 62 7.03 0.11
Igor Ozhiganov 53 3.17 0.06
Calle Rosen 4 0.10 0.03

Now, I know no one cares about the PK until the Bruins score a power play goal in the playoffs, and I’ve seen many people handwave the whole issue away, but there’s no one on the Leafs who has experience at PK and can take those minutes beyond Morgan Rielly. So if the post-Zaitsev plan is to play Rielly and Jake Muzzin 30 minutes a night as the sole penalty kill and power play defenders with no one else filling in, that sounds like a dumb idea.

PK guys are easy to find.

Okay, sure. We’ll re-sign Ron Hainsey and half fix this PK problem. And we’ll rush Travis Dermott into a role he hasn’t yet shown he can fill. What can go wrong?

Hainsey is your de facto number one right-side defender now, not just the nominal one like he was last season. Justin Holl or Calle Rosen are in the top four pending Dermott’s return, and Dermott has been rehabbing a shoulder, not getting better at defensive execution.

Are you still glad the Leafs traded the guy no one likes?

Play the kidz!!

Nope. The answer here is not to put a couple of guys who are under 21 on the Leafs defence corps when they belong on the top pair on the Marlies. The only plausible in-house option to even fill up the third pair is Andreas Borgman, and that’s fiddling around with the unimportant little hole in the ceiling over there while the rain pours in the giant one over here you just made bigger.

Sign a UFA!

Other than Hainsey, you mean? It’s possible they’ll have to. The trouble with that is that UFAs make too much money — more than they’re worth — and part of the benefit of trading Zaitsev is to not have anyone paid more than they’re worth, right?

Evolving Hockey has the following UFA contract AAV predictions for defenders:

Evolving Hockey’s UFA D Contract Predictions

Name Age Term AAV
Name Age Term AAV
Jake Gardiner 28 7 $6,946,296.00
Tyler Myers 29 7 $6,167,008.00
Alex Edler 33 3 $5,850,908.00
Anton Stralman 32 3 $4,557,640.00
Ron Hainsey 38 2 $3,715,530.00
Jordie Benn 31 4 $3,553,304.00
Patrik Nemeth 27 4 $3,438,500.00
Ben Chiarot 28 3 $2,817,273.00
Niklas Kronwall 38 2 $2,681,311.00
Braydon Coburn 34 2 $2,122,458.00
Deryk Engelland 37 1 $1,934,154.00
Roman Polak 33 1 $1,705,993.00
Ben Lovejoy 35 1 $1,501,751.00
Dan Girardi 35 1 $1,449,248.00
Brad Hunt 30 2 $1,180,637.00
Brooks Orpik 38 1 $1,150,064.00
Luca Sbisa 29 1 $1,085,919.00
Taylor Fedun 31 2 $1,051,993.00
Adam Mcquaid 32 1 $1,041,918.00
Tim Heed 28 2 $1,039,906.00

I took only one name off the top of the list. So, who should the Leafs sign? And please do pause and gulp over Ron Hainsey’s predicted contract.

Roman Polak is affordable. And Niklas Kronwall would be fantastic if we could go get him via the TARDIS.

Just trade Zaitsev for a defender who is better and cheaper, duh.

Okay, it’s not impossible because the Hurricanes did trade Victor Rask for Nino Niederreiter. But is that the most common form of trade out there? It’s not. So the idea that the Leafs can get someone they like in a one for one deal is nearly impossible given Zaitsev’s contract. Not even throwing in the famous Connor Brown can up this deal to a better, cheaper defender.

Buy low in a trade, then.

Yeah, now you want asset management smarts. There’s one defender who is known to be available who is undervalued by his team, and that’s Colin Miller. He’s played a little second unit PK, but is not a regular at it. He’s much more of a power play guy.

One other player who might be available at a devalued price is Adam Larsson. But neither he nor Miller are coming back in a Zaitsev deal. So what you get for trading Zaitsev, aside from the hole in the ceiling, is cap space. Period. Which means you have to spend assets to get a player who can patch some of that hole.

Which assets are those? Exactly?

Andreas Johnsson is not getting you Adam Larsson either. Neither is Kasperi Kapanen, and if you did trade one of them bundled in with something else for a defender to replace Zaitsev, who you traded to make cap space for a defenceman, then you need cap space for a new winger, and you don’t have a new winger. Or assets to buy one. You do have Patrick Marleau back on the top line, though. No wait, he’s going too, Connor Brown! No wait, he’s getting trade buzz. New guy. Ilya Mikheyev, he can play the top line left wing spot, I guess.

Remember Lou Lamoriello talking about digging a hole one place to fill in somewhere else? I wonder if this is why he signed Zaitsev in the first place! It bears thinking about.

What about some cheap underappreciated UFAs?

Sure, yeah. Carl Gunnarsson, who would love to come here rather than just re-sign on the cheap with St. Louis, is available for less than a million, according to the Evolving Hockey model. So, is Martin Marincin.

Morgan Rielly - Ron Hainsey
Jake Muzzin - Travis Dermott/Martin Marincin
Calle Rosen - Justin Holl

Does that look good to you? Particularly with Dermott out? Who do you roll out to hold those leads now?

If you’re fine with that, just for fun, close your eyes and imagine Jake Muzzin hurts his foot blocking a shot.

Trade next year’s first-round pick!

That is not the dumbest idea I’ve heard, and frankly, it will take that to really patch that hole in the ceiling. Unless Mitch Marner really won’t re-sign for less than eleventy billion like his agent says he requires, the Leafs will have to spend that pick and likely Timothy Liljegren too, just to patch the hole that Zaitsev was doing a fair to middling job of filling.

Now about that other hole over there where Jake Gardiner used to be...

This season is absolutely the wrong time to move out Nikita Zaitsev, no matter the cap space his departure creates, and maybe he just needs to get told that. Or convinced to stay in some nicer way. Otherwise, Kyle Dubas better have one hell of a series of trades lined up to improve the team because if they could afford a genuine top pairing defender, they’d have got one by now.