Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton / USA TODAY Sports

Zaitsev’s name is out there as a trade candidate, and for good reason

We’ve documented the Leafs’ need for help at defence more times than I can count, so let’s just cut the preamble and I’ll share a quote from Chris Johnston of Sportsnet about whether the team can change the way that group is deployed, if they can improve internally, or if they’ll have to look elsewhere.

“I think you’re going to see a change, but I think you’re going to see a change because they’re going to trade for someone. And that’s going to change how they deploy the right side of their blueline… I think there’s a lot of pressure on the GM to make the next move and see if there’s an external option”

There’s nothing surprising here, but we are starting to see a lot more confidence from reporters in the way they talk about the Leafs looking for help on the right side. Seems like management is watching the same games we are. Go figure.

And because Jake Gardiner is the topic of the week, the hosts on 590 asked about him potentially being moved since he’s so likely to leave in the summer. In context of the Leafs unloading Gardiner and perhaps packaging him up to flip for right-side help, Johnston doesn’t really see that happening. But did mention, unsurprisingly, that the cap situation makes it an almost-certainty that this is his last season in Toronto. Then he name-dropped a player whose value to the team gets argued about plenty by the team, its coaches, and plenty of folks in the media.

“I think it’s more likely that we see Nikita Zaitsev moved. I know it’s a tough trade to make, but I know his name has been out there among other teams as someone they think they can get.”

Now there’s an idea. It’s probably safe to assume the Leafs have been exploring trading Zaitsev since last summer when Dubas took over for Lamoriello for a couple reasons: It was inarguably Lou’s worst move as general manager, and the Leafs really need to clear out as much long term bad money as they can in order to compete in this 5-7 year contention window. There’s a little more urgency to do it now because Zaitsev has a modified no-trade clause that kicks in after this season and allows him to block out a third of the league as potential trade partners.

It’s going to be difficult, as Johnston mentioned. We’re not usually too concerned about boxcar numbers around these parts, but Zaitsev has just THREE points this season over 45 games. Every general manager in the league, the smart and not-so-smart, are going be apprehensive about that lack of production. It’s hard to fleece anyone with that eye-popping number out there.

But Toronto really has to try to make this happen, and if Johnston is mentioning him specifically, there’s some real sourcing behind Zaitsev potentially being on the move. I’d love to see them get lucky and burn the Rangers for Chris Kreider, who has one year left after this one at $4.625M AAV, but that’s extremely unlikely unless Toronto ponies up with some real good futures. If we’re talking essentially 1-for-1, even taking on a worse dollar for value deal on shorter term would be in their interests for the Leafs. For instance, a guy like Kris Russell out of Edmonton might make sense (h/t draglikepull) as a buyout candidate that does much less damage as the team looks for flexibility down the road.

This is what Zaitsev’s buyout would look like if it happened after this season:

Sweet lord, those signing bonuses are a killer. Who was Lamoriello negotiating against? The argument has always been that Zaitsev and his agent would threaten to go back to the KHL, but this is hard cave by the Leafs. The deal was bad when it was signed and it’s getting substantially worse.

Anyway, here’s the buyout for Edmonton’s shot-blocking cowboy:

That’s more doable.

A big question surrounding trading Zaitsev this season is would it be possible to also improve the defence either through that deal itself or a separate move. The Leafs are operating as a contender and certainly in “win now” mode, so even the slightest downgrade to their already-weak blueline would be concerning going into the playoffs. I suppose that depends entirely on if they’re as low on Zaitsev as most fans are becoming, and whether or not there are other irons in the fire. It almost sounds like both are true at this point.

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