One of the biggest problems in the Toronto Maple Leafs cap right now is the onerous contract Lou Lamoriello handed out to Nikita Zaitsev before leaving the team. Well, Dubas can thank Leafs Nation as the ‘toxic fanbase’ has forced the Russian defender to request a trade.
He didn’t ever take the next step after showing promise in his debut season, regressing into a bottom-pair defender at times, who Mike Babcock couldn’t trust. It’s not the level of play Toronto expected when they signed the player and his large cap hit exaggerated his struggles.
The deal was a whopping seven-year contract at $4.5m per year. Not bad for Zaitsev who ‘earned’ the deal after just one season in the NHL. His first season saw him put up 36 points, 4 goals, and 32 assists while somehow still going -22 on the year. His +/- improved over the last two seasons but points have dramatically dropped off.
So what’s the story here? Well, apparently Zaitsev is looking for a new home in the NHL after struggling in back-to-back seasons with the Leafs.
After a difficult season, TOR and Nikita Zaitsev are working together to find him a fresh start. He is available and we will see where it goes.
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) May 30, 2019
The reason Zaitsev has requested the trade has been reported by Bob MacKenzie, Jonas Siegal, and Kristen Shilton as “personal reasons.” What are these personal reasons that would make a player who signed for seven years in Toronto want to bail on the epicenter of the hockey world?
We can credit the work of @theLeafsIMO on Twitter for translating and clipping Nikita Zaitsev’s comments from an interview in Russia for Sports.RU:
— Michael (@TheLeafsIMO) May 29, 2019
The Leafs hard on a defenseman? No way, not this team; not this fanbase! *cough* Larry Murphy. I guess it is true, Leafs Nation loves to jump on their defensemen and (overly) criticize their play, but what else are we expected to do after decades of losing?
Also, the pendulum swings both ways. Morgan Rielly is a living legend in the city because of his style of play and offensive output. Jake Muzzin and Travis Dermott are also lauded for their positive play, and prospects Sandin and Liljegren are being excitedly waited upon to make it to the big team, too.
The way out…
Zaitsev finding this out that Leafs fans were overly critical on their team first hand was an inevitable conclusion. However, Zaitsev’s agent getting him a seven-year deal with the team after his ELC and not explaining the context of defensemen in Toronto is poor player management.
Zaitsev also has a 10-team no-trade list which should test his resolve if the Leafs can get a return from any of these blocked teams. The return on Zaitsev would likely not be all that exciting considering his poor play and cap hit. That being said, Zaitsev does have upside and a riverboat GM could gamble on a change of environment reigniting his play.
Ironically, I was impressed with Zaitsev’s play with Muzzin as a shutdown pair in the playoffs. It forced me into an optimistic viewpoint on the polarizing player, but I was coming around on the idea of keeping him. If Dubas could plug holes with cheap, young players on the back end the $4.5m cap hit wouldn’t be so bad.
This development throws a wrench into my own mental plan but could end up being a blessing in disguise for Kyle Dubas. The Leafs GM is currently negotiating a $10m+ deal with Mitch Marner. The surprise of Zaitsev’s $4.5m having to come off the books could give him the wiggle room to get creative with the Marner deal.