His wedding day.
The birth of his children.
The day his favourite sports team announces they’ve traded Nikita Zaitsev.
These are the important milestones in a man’s life. I’d imagine they are very similar for women as well, but I wouldn’t presume to know your life experiences.
In my opinion, and in the opinion of the Leafs salary cap, it’s become painfully clear that it is time to move from Nikita Zaitsev. A defenseman who at his best has been a serviceable middle pairing defender, and at his worst has been my reason for drinking.
Zaitsev could probably get a pass as third pairing defender on the Leafs, and on teams not aggressively pursuing a Stanley Cup in the next few years, he is absolutely serviceable as a fourth guy, with controlled usage. The problem for Zaitsev is that try as we might, there’s no separating the man from the contract, and for the Leafs, whether he’s the fourth D out of necessity or out of merit, it’s too much to be spending on him and the term of his deal haunts my dreams.
Given the Zaitsev situation, I thought it would be prudent to begin exploring what the options are that will enable the Leafs to move on from him, the most painful task associated with this was trying to identify who the potential suitors for Zaitsev would be. In doing so, I landed on the Devils, Blackhawks, Islanders, Panthers, and Stars as the most likely landing spots for Zaitsev. The reasoning below…
Dallas- This is a team so desperate for right handed defenseman that they’ve picked up the other crap that the Leafs have dumped on the market in Connor Carrick and Roman Polak. It seems reasonable to assume that they’ve sworn off Toronto defensmen at this point, but with significant shortcomings beyond Klingberg and Heiskanen, Zaitsev may be fit.
Chicago- Heck, they took a chance on Connor Murphy being good, maybe they have an equally bad blindspot towards Zaitsev. We are slowly approaching the era in which Chicago won’t have their old cap challenges, and with Seabrook and Murphy being the two guys on the right side right now, Zaitsev is most definitely an upgrade.
New Jersey- This blueline is straight up terrifying and shuffling deck chairs seems like a reasonable approach for them. Everything about Zaitsev also seems to scream, Devils defenseman.
Florida- Dale Tallon is hockey’s wild card, and pretty much every ridiculous scenario involving a Zaitsev trade seems like there’s a potential connection to Florida in the process.
NY Islanders- This is pretty much just hoping that Lamoriello likes Zaitsev as much as he did when he signed him.
That’s not to say, that other teams aren’t potential trading fits, these are just my front runners. Now let’s look at how Zaitsev could get traded…
Option 1: Hockey Trade
A good old fashioned try to find players of similar value and trade them 1 for 1, or something very similar to that. I can’t particularly fathom what Zaitsev would fetch in return in a hockey trade, but if a team sees him as a second pairing defenseman this is an ideal scenario. When it comes to 1 for 1 hockey trades, the teams mentioned above are the front runners. The problem with this is that the goal of a Zaitsev trade should likely be mostly about shedding salary, and that brings us to…
Option 2: Moving Zaitsev for Futures
It’s hard to imagine that anyone is taking on Zaitsev without sending salary back, but New Jersey is one of the few teams in the position to do so. I can’t imagine they would, but they are perhaps the best option. The Stars with Martin Hanzal heading onto the injured reserve for the rest of the season might be another, but Chicago has a garbage in/garbage out philosophy. Florida, as with all things, is a wildcard.
In any likelihood, the Leafs would be acquiring the latest of draft picks or someone who is a prospect in name only. Think of when the Leafs aquired Anthony Peluso or if the Leafs included Fabrice Herzog in a deal.
Option 3: Garbage In/Garbage Out
This option definitely expands the market for Zaitsev beyond the four teams mentioned as there is potentially a lot of teams looking to shed garbage. The variants on this type of deal are plentiful, so we’ll provide a few examples, using the Edmonton Oilers as the most frequent example
Option 3a: The Phaneuf Trade Approach
Dion Phaneuf’s contract was long term garbage that the Leafs wanted to rid themselves of for the future. As we can see, Phaneuf’s contract is still doing damage to the Kings, who are now paying him over $5M to sit in the press box.
With the Phaneuf deal, the long term garbage contract was dealt for a series of short term garbage contracts the Senators wanted to dump, Michalek, Greening, and Cowen. You could argue the Leafs could pull off something similar by dealing Zaitsev to the Oilers for Kyle Brodziak, Brandon Manning, and Matt Benning. The deal would save the Oilers some money, while upgrading their defense from Manning and Benning, and in turn the Leafs then bury the trio on the Marlies (or possibly with Benning play him on the 3rd pairing) and take the cap hits just for the 2019-20 season before being able to move on. I suppose you could also sub Zach Kassian somewhere into this scenario, but since it’s just an example, please don’t dwell on it, or limit this idea to the Oilers. In fact, let’s see if the Sens want to dance again.
Option 3b: The Trade and Buyout
Due to the length of the deal and the bonuses (yes, for some reason there are bonuses) the Zaitsev contract is a pain in the ass to buyout.
Yucky. The biggest issue is that it doesn’t do anything address the immediate relief desired in Year One.
Now a Kris Russell buyout on the other hand…
That does help the Leafs. Not so much in year two, but the rest of it is a lot more palatable than Zaitsev’s. I presume the Oilers would do this deal if they view a right shot as a necessity or want to continue their deckchair shuffle and hope that this modest upgrade helps them in some way, but instead we can visit the Florida option…
Oh yeah, that’s the stuff. Florida doesn’t have money to burn on players who aren’t going to play, so is this a fit? I’d sure hope so.
Option 3c: Short Term Pain, Long Term Gain
Despite the fact that any deal should be about trying to free up cap space for the 2019-20 season, there’s always the option of saying to hell with that, bringing in an expensive expiring contract, and getting to cap freedom in 2020-21 instead. Players like Martin Hanzal, Andrew MacDonald, Ryan Callahan, and Carl Soderberg fit the bill, but what is the appetite for any of these teams to pursue this? Possible the Stars would take a chance on Zaitsev and shedding Hanzal is the process helps the cause, but and while it seems cruel, there is a possibility of Hanzal retiring or going on the injured reserve. It’s also a chance to revisit Option 3b again.
Option 4: Salary Retention
This is a scary thought since the Leafs are still locked into the long term salary retention of the Kessel trade and going long term again with Zaitsev handcuffs them from future usage of this until 2022. If the Leafs use salary retention to market correct Zaitsev to a $3M defenseman, it’s possible there may be an increased number of suitors. Honestly if it rids the Leafs of Zaitsev in a situation where the Leafs receive a legitimate asset in return, I’m considering this.
Option 5: Nuclear Option
Waive Zaitsev. If a team claims him, problem solved. If not, there’s at least $1M of cap relief. The hope is that by waiving Zaitsev, the KHL will begin to emerge as the most appealing option for his career, and a mutually terminated contract can be achieved and he’ll happily return home to a large payday from SKA St. Petersburg. This is absolutely a shrewd move that may burn some bridges with Russian players, as well as tarnish the Leafs reputation a little around the league. On the other hand, it is a business and this an option that allows them to do right by the business.
Potentially Zaitsev is happy with kicking around the Marlies for the next half decade, and that would sting a little, but I don’t think it stings as much as watching the Gardiner-Zaitsev pairing night in and night out, or the Hainsey-Zaitsev, final minutes shutdown pairing which only seems to do more harm than good. That brings us to the last option…
Option 6: What Likely Happens
Settle in. We’ve got a lot of Nikita Zaitsev to watch in the next few years. It doesn’t seem that Gardiner will be back next year, so there’s some hope that a new partner will help, or maybe as the Leafs prospects develop and the team changes around him, we’ll see Zaitsev on the third pairing more often than not. The wait and see approach has its merit as the buyout becomes more reasonable after the 2019-20 season, and buying out Zaitsev this summer offers almost no relief. In fact, the buyout + league minimum contract as replacement is a higher cap hit than Zaitsev currently has, so there is absolutely no benefit to that decision.
Another important thing to factor is that starting July 1st, Nikita Zaitsev will be submitting a 10 team no trade list, because of course he has that. That will be rivaled by the fact that he also has a $3M signing bonus to be paid that day. So, if they deal Zaitsev right now it would have to be a team that is comfortable paying on that bonus money. If they deal Zaitsev later, it would have to be to one of the 20 teams he’d agree to go to. That certainly doesn’t help things and makes for a rare situation where I don’t envy Kyle Dubas.