RFAs, the Sequel: Introduction, and Nikita Zaitsev

Mar 20, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (22) skates against the Boston Bruins at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Boston 4-2. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

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.

NIKITA ZAITSEV

The Player

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.

The Stats

Still, it’s important to do a little bit of player analysis. Below is a table of Zaitsev’s GAR numbers:

TOI TOI_EV TOI_PP EVO EVD PPO DRAW TAKE FAC EV_OV PURE_OV OVERALL
1803 1399 166 3.5 0 1.1 0 1.2 0 3.5 4.6 5.8

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.

The Money

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.

  • Stan Smith

    I agree that locking up Zaitsev for the long term is a good idea. The difference between your optimistic and pessimistic contracts are so little I don’t think it really matters what the end result is. Anywhere in that range is fine with me.

  • keegan

    Is there any legitimacy to Don Cherry criticizing Zaitsev, referencing his plus-minus and saying he doesn’t know how to play defense?

    I am a fan of Zaitsev’s but I can be a blind homer sometimes.

    • Gary Empey

      Sure the criticism is legitimate when looking at the plus and minus over the whole season. I never sell Cherry’s analysis short. What I see though is our whole defensive scheme as a work in progress. Particularly with the number of rookies learning how to play defensively when the other team has the puck, at the NHL level. There were vast improvements by the forwards as the season progressed. By the end of the year they cut down the tap-ins, and the high number of chances given up from the slot. In the end this learning curve will effect the stats of both our defencemen and our goalies.

    • Gary Empey

      Zaitsev’s management team and Zaitsev himself have denied the 7 year story. Lou seems to be dead set against adding no trade clauses to contracts. One has to look the the market to estimate what fair market value is for an above average, 24 year old, right shooting defenceman. One would like the contract to be moveable if the need arises. As Harte of a Lion points out often agents are simply looking for a total amount eg: $30 million. If the team feels it is better for the cap then they can spread it out over 7 years if they chose. Lou seems inclined to prefer 5 year contracts if he believes in the player. I think those 7 year contracts are very risky when doled out to 29 and over hockey players.

    • Harte of a Lion

      Gary, I mute the volume or change channels when Cherry is on. His rant on Zaitsev and the plus minus stats is BS. Both Zaitsev and Rielly were on the ice for approximately 7 goals while the Leafs had the goalie pulled for an extra attacker. That substantially reduces both players + – stats. I prefer to look at Corsi and Fenwick when looking at advanced stats.
      Plus minus does not reflect quality of competition, zone starts and many other important factors when determining statistically a players worth to the team.
      If you are starting a disproportionate number of shifts in the d-zone against competition like Ovechkin, Crosby, Tavares, Stamkos, McDavid, Schiefle and other top players, you tend to be on the ice for more goals against. Lastly, he might be 24, but this was his first season in the NHL and that is a major adjustment from playing in the KHL.
      I was excited when the Leafs signed him and I continue to be excited about his future. I would say he is an above average #3 defenceman and if he never becomes a true top pairing guy, Leafs Nation should be thrilled he chose the Leafs above all other suitors. I look forward to Zaitsev patrolling the right side of the top or second pairing for years to come and based on his talent and the market, 4 million + per year is reasonable especially if the contract excludes any NM/NT clauses.
      The team has a very savvy and talented management group and I have seen nothing to indicate they are about to do anything ridiculous or dumb. In the Shanaplan, I believe.

      • Harte of a Lion

        They need an edit button here! When you remove the 7 empty net goals and his -4 from the Florida game (everyone was brutal that night) his plus minus improves by 11.