Now that we’ve actually had an NHL trade (and for right-shooting defenders too), the rumours around Nikita Zaitsev will heat up. While it is true that Zaitsev will be cash-salary cheaper for one season after his July 1 signing bonus is paid, it’s a lot harder to trade a player after everyone has made their draft-day trades and signed their free agents than it is to do it now. So, teams who want to make a move may not wait.
Derren Dreger started things off yesterday with this tweet:
Trade discussions will heat up in the days leading up to next weeks draft. Mentioned Vancouver’s interest in Nikita Zaitsev last week. Sounds like the Oilers have some interest as well.— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) June 13, 2019
He then clarified exactly what he meant on Leafs Lunch. While the tweet can be read by Leafs-centric eyes as if the Oilers have decided they want Zaitsev and called up asking, it’s more complex and less solid than that.
The Oilers have around $10 million in cap space (pending the release of the new ceiling, that amount will go up) and only nine forwards under contract. A lot of those forwards are borderline AHLers, and any reasonable observer would think the team needs forward upgrades worse than they do defence, just on the numbers.
But the Oilers defence is terrible on quality. And expensive. It is actually very plausible to imagine they could slot in Zaitsev on the top four and improve, but they have no open spaces.
So on Leafs Lunch (advance to minute seven to skip the St. Louis talk), Dreger dug into what he was tweeting about just before. The question is framed as what are the Leafs potentially getting out of a deal with either Vancouver or Edmonton in terms of defencemen coming back, since the Leafs have no one much under contract.
Dreger: Specific to the tweet I sent out on Edmonton, I’m not reporting that there’s a trade negotiation happening between Kenny Holland and Kyle Dubas. I just know that Kenny Holland has a plan in place; he knows it’s going to take some time, but the word on the street is that he’s willing to move a defenceman. That’s why it would make sense from Toronto’s perspective, depending on who that defenceman is.
Dreger goes on to report that he was told that Detroit had interest in Zaitsev before the Leafs signed him as a free agent.
The summation from Dreger is “I think there are a lot of tire-kickers, a lot of teams with interest in Nikita Zaitsev.” He then moves into some higher-level speculation about how the Leafs could come up with a bigger package that would get the Leafs a defenceman back who they might actually want. Dreger is not suggesting that the interest in Zaitsev is enough to do that in a one-for-one deal, since Zaitsev has had some poor results, has too much term and a big-ish cap hit.
A quick look at the Oilers roster up above, and you should see that Holland will want to get rid of Kris Russell or Andrej Sekera who are expensive, have term and aren’t producing, or in the case of Sekera, even playing. Funny how the guys other teams want to ditch are about like the guys the Leafs want to trade too.
The main takeaway here is really that there is more than one team looking at Zaitsev, so a trade that returns something is possible. But whatever that something is, one thing is very clear: it’s not going to be a guy who will fill the role Zaitsev filled on the Leafs.
Later on on Thursday, the Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta stepped onto Sportsnet radio in Vancouver in his regular spot and discussed this same topic.
His remarks are more difficult to sort out, since he’s very unclear if he’s speaking in terms of speculation or received information. I believe there’s some quotes on Twitter that don’t quite get to the meat of what he said but, of course, were widely circulated.
At just after the seven minute mark in the clip linked above, Pagnotta is asked about “reports” about interest in Zaitsev from the Oilers and the Canucks — Dreger’s tweet, in other words. The specific question is, “Are the Oilers a big player for Zaitsev?”
Pagnotta: There are teams that view Zaitsev as a strong, sturdy, shutdown defenceman. [Pagnotta elaborates on this, and Zaitsev’s career arc] There are other teams that are interested in [Zaitsev]. The last time we spoke last week, I think it was six or seven. There’s interest there. There’s that salary cap hit that comes into play. But it still sounds like you’re looking at tossing up probably a draft pick or mid-level prospect along with an NHL defenceman now and probably looking at a five-six type defenceman. But that seems like that’s the asking rate from Toronto’s perspective.
So, make of that what you will, but if you listen, you will hear him emphasize all those “probably”s and “seem”s in his remarks. It seems like Pagnotta is getting everything he has, however much that is, from other teams. It’s not clear if he has actually been told specifically that this is the actual ask from the Leafs by any team that has called. It is clear he isn’t suggesting there is a three-part return or that the defenceman coming back in anything more than a warm body.
A low pick and a guy who can play euchre with Justin Holl in the press box is realistic. A better pick and a guy who might play the third pair all year is lovely to hope for. A top four defenceman isn’t happening, nor is a prospect who will become that. Dreger’s wishful thinking on a big package that includes Kapanen (he really loves to fantasy trade him) is just that: a desire for a big thing to talk about.
One final thing Dreger did say is that this is all in the very early stages. These aren’t talks, this is interest, or maybe a better way to phrase that is that it’s other GMs speculating about what trades they might make or just checking on the market rate.
On final thing Pagnotta discussed was the Canucks having interest in signing Jake Gardiner because he doesn’t think the Leafs can afford him. And that’s interesting considering that Pierre LeBrun reported recently that the Leafs haven’t ruled out Gardiner.
Whatever happens, simply trading Zaitsev is not the end of it. It’s not even the main event. Acquiring someone to join the team is what really matters.