Last year, on my personal blog, I wrote a series of posts discussing the potential future contracts for the Leafs’ restricted free agents. You can find a summary and self review of that here.
This year will be a little less meaty as there aren’t nearly as many big-name restricted free agents for the Leafs. The Rielly and Kadri contracts were big fish to fry, but this year we still have Zaitsev, Brown and Hyman as key contributors to draw interest.
Throughout this series, I’m going to base my player evaluation on DTMAboutHeart’s GAR (because that model is much more strong predictively than Corsi alone). The explanation of how it works is over a series of posts that starts here, and you absolutely should read the whole series. I could look at other data separately, but since everything is rolled into GAR, that would be double-counting, and extremely lengthy. GAR is better, and makes my job easier, so I love it.
This series will cover all of the Leafs’ free agents including the Marlies players. But this time, a few players in a similar situation will be lumped together. The order of posts will go as follows:
- Nikita Zaitsev (Here)
- Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks
- Connor Brown
- Sergei Kalinin and Seth Griffith
- Brendan Leipsic
- Justin Holl
- Zach Hyman
7 posts in 7 days. Can I do it? We’ll see. Let’s get it started.
The Leafs brought Zaitsev in as a “rookie” on an entry level contract which lasted just one year because of his age. He played this time as a key contributor as a top-4, and generally top-pair, defenseman. He’s clearly become a core part of this young and building Leafs defense.
Zaitsev has spent most of these season playing with his two most powerful comparables: Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. Unquestionably the Leafs are pleased with his ability to play up in the lineup with their two flagship left-hand defensemen. It’s also pretty unquestionable that the Leafs will probably take the same approach they did with Rielly, and that the former group took with Gardiner, when it comes to negotiations.
The main reason this series starts with Zaitsev is: we basically already know what Zaitsev’s contract is going to be. As such, the “realistic” and “pessimistic” guesses will center around the rumoured deal, and the “optimistic” will be what I would be going for.
Still, it’s important to do a little bit of player analysis. Below is a table of Zaitsev’s GAR numbers:
These are unquestionably positive looks. Both literally in that there’s not a single negative number on the board, but practically in that Zaitsev is significantly above average and well above “replacement” as well. This is an encouraging sight no question.
So given what we know about Zaitsev, what should his contract be?
We’ll start with the rumoured numbers which is a 7 year deal, at $4.5M per year. The criticism for this largely comes from the term, and it’s hard to disagree. Since all of those 7 years are quality years generally for a skater I’m not too worried, but they’re making a big bet on very little NHL data. But it’s important to remember that the Leafs have been working on bringing Zaitsev to North America since 2014-15, they’ve seen a lot more of him than we have. Their confidence level will undoubtedly be higher than ours.
Knowing that, I think we can compare this to the Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner contracts of old: locking up a good young defenseman at a reasonable salary. This one obviously goes further than the aforementioned deals, but still within good years for a player. Personally, I wouldn’t hate to have another 2-3 years on Jake Gardiner’s current contract.
Let’s get into the final part: My guesses.
Optimistic: $5M x 5 years
Realistic: $4.5M x 7 years
Pessimistic: $5M x 7 years
With the rumours there’s a pretty tight window of reasonable guesses, so I’m happy with where these guesses stand.
Stay tuned tomorrow when we take on the 2 Marlies goalies, Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks.