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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

Report: Leafs, Zaitsev working on seven-year contract extension

Nikita Zaitsev spent years wanting to join the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it seems like, if all goes to plan, he’s going to spend, many, many more with them. The 25-year-old defenceman appears to be closing in on a long-term extension with the blue and white, according to TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie.

From tonight’s first intermission segment:

One other bit of news for Toronto Maple Leafs fans, that we should point out. It’s not done, but Nikita Zaitsev, who’s a restricted free agent at the end of the year is getting a lot closer to what we believe would be a seven-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. But I should point out, that’s not done yet, but it seems to be in the works. Zaitsev, and that’s to be expected for a player that’s played really well in this year, in his rookie season and he’s been one of the top pairing defenceman for them.

Zaitsev has a very interesting year with the Leafs, scoring four goals and adding 30 assists (one of which came in the first period tonight) in 76 games. Most of his production has come on the powerplay, as one of the two defencemen who play in Toronto’s four-forward units. At even strength, Zaitsev is averaging 0.87 points per hour, which is fifth on a team that is pretty universally even (first is 0.99).

From a puck possession perspective, Zaitsev is a below-water -1.7 relative CF% on the season, spending most of the year with Morgan Rielly with occasional time with Jake Gardiner and Matt Hunwick. Much has been made of his usage getting in the way of that; Zaitsev gets some of the toughest zone starts and, along with Rielly, plays against the toughest competition. “Quality of Competition” metrics tend to have the gap of usage between Rielly/Zaitsev and the rest of the team to be existent but slight, while other means of gauging matchups (such as Star Percentage from Tyler Dellow of The Athletic) have the pair’s assignments as significantly tougher). That context may play into the decision making process.

When I think of a contract of this sort of stature, I look across the ice in the very game that the Leafs are playing now, at Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators. Many believed that Nashville was taking a risk when they signed their Swiss defenceman to a 7-year, $28 million deal in 2013, after scoring 10 goals and adding 24 assists in his first 100 NHL games. Inflations to the cap would make this a near identical deal.

There are some differences, though. Josi’s extension kicked in at the age of 23; Zaitsev’s will come at 26. Josi had better possession numbers in his contract year, though he bombed in his rookie season in that regard. Of course, it worked out as a slam dunk for the Predators; Josi is likely to hit 50 points for the third year in a row, and has already hit 40 for the fourth in a row.

Will that happen with Zaitsev? It’s hard to say for sure; I’m actually torn on what to think about this deal. I’m about as big of a fan of his as anybody, and I believe that he’ll look even better as the load is spread out. As well, seven years only brings him to Age 32; not exactly young, and closer to declining age than you’d like, but not all the way over that teams will be scared to take him on. Especially with a right-handed shot, which appears to be catnip to today’s GM’s.

But still, seven years is a long time. If they miss, they’ll be stuck for a long time. This is one where you hope, more than ever, that all due diligence will be done before pen meets paper.

As for Zaitsev himself, though, I’m sure he’s stoked. His second home will now be his first home for the forseeable future, and I have no doubt he’s happy about that.