Before I get into the nitty gritty of this I’d like to say a few things.
I don’t dislike Nikita Zaitsev in any way, nor do I believe that he can’t be a solid asset for the Leafs moving forward.
When he started with the Leafs he was granted a fair amount of powerplay time, 2nd only to Jake Gardiner among defenders. As a result he produced 12 of his 36 points with the man advantage. He also played under 2 minutes a game short handed, which, I guess, was Mike Babcocks way of easing him into the role.
His mobility allowed him to have good gap control in the defensive zone, and his strength meant that when he angled guys off along the wall he could stop them in their tracks and put them on their backside.
He spent most of his time on Morgan Riellys right side, and, in my opinion, he’s never looked as good anywhere else in the lineup.
He started the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone as well, and by all accounts it had appeared that the Leafs had found themselves a 2nd pairing player at the very least.
Maybe it was that confidence that drove former Leaf GM, Lou Lamoriello, to sign him to a 7 year deal worth 31.5M, or 4.5M per season. Whatever it was, that has lead to his current predicament.
Zaitsev has taken a step back for the most part. While he has been taken off the powerplay completely, his shorthanded TOI/GP has shot up to just under 3 minutes for 2 years running now. Meanwhile, his point totals dropped to 5 goals and 13 points in 60 games last season, and 1 goal and 6 points in 52 games as of this writing. For a defender that costs 4.5M against the cap that is considered below expectations by many.
It may be just this writers opinion, but he’s likely overpaid by 1.5-2M per year. I believe if he were making around 2.5-3M per season then the Leafs would be less motivated to move on because that’s what players cost that spend that much time on a fairly successful penalty killing unit, and also play over 20 minutes a night total.
However, he isn’t making that much, he’s making 4.5M, and with the new contract extension just handed out to Auston Matthews, another coming (hopefully) to Mitch Marner, and William Nylander having inked a big deal of his own a few short months ago, the cap space the team has been enjoying for the past couple of years is quickly draining away. So moving on from Zaitsev almost seems like a necessity, rather than a want.
So what should they expect as a return from an overpaid, yet still useful (in the right role) player? I would view this deal in two parts. The first is the player, and the second is the contract. In order to make a deal the Leafs may have to take on an undesirable contract, while also asking for a little something in return for the usefulness of the player. Think Dion Phaneuf, and the return of Milan Michalek (salary dump), Colin Greening (salary dump), Jared Cowen (salary dump), Tobias Lindberg (middling prospect at the time), and a 2nd round pick. The pick and prospect were given for the player. The three players were given to make the money work. I’d look for the same structure of deal if possible. Another scenario is simple, and may be what the Leafs want to do the most. Simply put, they may want to pay a premium to upgrade Zaitsev without taking on any bad contracts at all. This could be costly and may be a tough deal to make, but Dubas has made one solid deal recently for Jake Muzzin, maybe he can pull off another great one?
With that in mind I went out in search of teams that I thought would make a good trade partner for the Leafs and Zaitsev, and believe me, it didn’t turn out as fruitful as I had hoped.
Lets start with an old rumour, and work our way from there:
St. Louis Blues
Not too long ago there were rumours abound about the availability of Alex Pietrangelo and/or Colton Parayko. Either of which would look terrific in Leafs blue and white. At this moment it’s my belief that those names were out there mostly because William Nylander was unsigned and possibly a trade candidate. For either of those players to move you would assume that St. Louis is either getting a big offensive piece in return or they’re heading into a rebuild. Neither of these things seem likely at the moment considering they are currently holding down the final wild card spot in the West.
If things were to change for the Blues over the next year or two, and if Zaitsev is still here, then I think the Leafs would re-visit this avenue. However, for the time being I just don’t think it makes sense for the Blues to move out one of their two best defenders for a downgrade, even if that would mean collecting extra assets, unless those assets were top ends ones such as Nylander. Right now it seems that the Leafs would want to trade in futures as well, whereas the Blues may want immediate help for their roster.
With arguably the best right defender depth in the NHL, the Hurricanes and Leafs have been scouting each other intensely as of late.
The question is, if Kyle Dubas and co. were to trade for one of the ‘Canes defenders, would it make sense for the Leafs long term cap situation if they didn’t send Zaitsev back the other way? On the other side, if Carolina were to send a defender to Toronto, would it makes sense for them to take Nikita and his contract back in the deal?
My assumption is that the answer to both questions is No. In order for the Leafs to comfortably add a long term contract they would want to move Zaitsev in any deal. The Hurricanes, with 4 capable right shot defenders, would likely prefer a scenario where they are left with 3 guys on that side, so likely wouldn’t want Zaitsev back in any return as well.
This isn’t to say that the Leafs aren’t targeting Carolinas right shot defenders, this is simply to say that I wouldn’t expect Zaitsev to be part of any deal involving the Hurricanes.
**Writers note: With this much scouting and the rumours of Doug Hamiltons availability yet again, is it simply a matter of the Leafs doing their due diligence before they ante up for the big defender that is always on the move?
When I look at the top 4 defenders the Ducks deploy each night I have to say, I’m a little envious. I see a great mix of size, skill, defensive acumen and physicality. That, combined with their depth, is exactly what the Leafs are searching for.
On paper it could be a fit, considering the Ducks have the type of players the Leafs may want, and could be in a position to move a defender for younger, faster help up front, while also having the ability to take on Zaitsev and give him a role within a terrific top 4.
The only reason I think they wouldn’t swing this type of deal right now is because I believe the coach has simply gone past his best before date, and that Bob Murray will make a change there, once again, before he makes a dramatic change to the roster.
I also wonder how warm Bob Murrays seat is these days, but I digress.
Considering where the Ducks are, and their need to get younger and faster up front, there is the possibility that they could swing a deal that looks something like this:
To TOR: Josh Manson
To ANA: Nikita Zaitsev, Andreas Johnsson
Of course it would be up to the GMs to smooth out the value with other pieces, but those 3 players being the centre of the deal could make some sense.
I’d keep an eye out there, but with low expectations for now.
It was announced today that Randy Carlyle has been relieved of his duties as Head Coach of the Anaheim Ducks. Bob Murray will act as interim head coach until the end of the season.
Murray has no previous head coaching experience and has been GM of the Ducks since 2008.
With this news I have to wonder if the Ducks will be more apt to deal away a player such as Josh Manson. It’s believed that Randy Carlyle was a big fan of Manson, and part of the reason he has been untouchable is because of that support from his coach. Will they see him as available now?
Detroit Red Wings
This is a team that might not be that great of a trade partner at first glance, yet they may be the best team on this list.
For starters, the Wings aren’t far off what the Leafs were a few short years ago. They’re in the midst of a rebuild, which usually means you have cap space to spare. While that’s not the case for the Wings, there are ways around it.
For starters, they have players that can be used as cap dumps and rentals to make the dollars work.
The first player most will think of is right shot defender Nick Jensen. It’s being reported that the Wings would like to re-sign him, but if they come to a point where they don’t think that’s possible then I’d be surprised if the Leafs weren’t interested.
On top of that I also wonder about the fit of LWer Gustav Nyquist on the Leafs. In a year where the Leafs would really like to go far into the playoffs, adding a player with his high end skill would go a long way. He isn’t the power forward that fans have been asking for, but he is a legitimate top 6 forward all the same, and he and head coach Mike Babcock are familiar with each other, which could help him become more comfortable in the lineup quicker.
If the Leafs aren’t willing to match the asking price the Wings are asking for Nyquist, which is rumoured to be a 1st round pick but could drop if you offer the right prospect or roster players, then they also have options that would fit more into the raw salary dump category.
Tomas Vanek, who at 35 years old is more of a powerplay specialist than anything, could be a surprisingly good depth addition, and could help the Leafs’ 2nd powerplay unit down the stretch. He’s making 3 million this season and is a pending UFA. While he isn’t the top end player he was in his days with the Buffalo Sabres, in a specific and limited role he could be effective.
Trevor Daley, a 35 year old left shot defender that’s adept at playing the right side, has 1 more year left on his contract at a 3.166 million cap hit. He’d add veteran depth to the group, and would give the Leafs some security in case of injury. On top of this, if the Leafs didn’t feel there was a position available for him moving forward, then his buyout numbers don’t look too bad. If they opted for this route he would cost the Leafs $1,699,999 towards the cap in the 2019-20 season, and just $733,333 over the course of the 2020-21 season. He’s a Toronto native as well, for whatever that’s worth. Last, but not least, he has a unique NTC, in which he has a full NTC until 10 days before this years trade deadline, at which point he has to give the Wings a 15 team no trade list. My guess would be the Leafs wouldn’t be included on that list.
The last player that makes some sense in a deal is 4th line centre Luke Glendenning. It was rumoured that the Leafs had interest in obtaining him last year at the request of head coach Mike Babcock, who had Glendenning on the Wings for a couple of seasons. The rumours are back, but they now have a lot of people wondering why there is still interest there considering the emergence of 4th line centre Frederik Gauthier. Could the answer to that revolve around cap dollars? Glendenning makes 1.8M towards the cap and is signed for two more seasons after this one. If, at the beginning of next season, the only contract the Leafs were left with was Glendennings and Zaitsev was off the books then maybe there’s a deal there to be made.
From the perspective of the Wings, they’d be adding a defender that, while he’s nothing spectacular, is certainly capable, and could use a change of scenery. He would also offer any rookies that enter their lineup a bit of insulation. Considering he has played on both special units and has some experience in different leagues, as well as a media crazed market, he could offer veteran advice while also helping to ease them into the lineup while doing a passable job on the ice himself. That type of presence may come in handy for them moving forward as veteran players such as Niklas Kronwall, Trevor Daley, Jonathan Ericsson and Mike Green begin to move out over the next few years.
The Florida Panthers make some sense, but the rumour is they want to clear cap space to make a run at some big free agents this year, with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky being at the centre of those rumours. If they want to take a run at Bobrovsky then maybe clearing out a goalie is in the cards, but this part of my theory is a little loose. Could bringing James Reimer to the Leafs in return for Nikita Zaitsev and Garret Sparks work, while also telling Roberto Luongo that he’s allergic to his hockey gear? It frees cap space for the Leafs and gives them a fan favourite backup, while it gives the Panthers a Bob/Sparks tandem next season. If you combine the trade with moving Lu to LTIR it does a good job of allocating cap space for the Panthers. On top of that it could help to have one of Panarin and Bobrovskys former teammates from their national team in the room to help lure them in this summer. With additional players such as Mark Pysyk, Riley Sheahan, and even Jamie McGinn on the Panthers there may be a deal to be made there (Reimer was just an example to divide the fanbase).
**Hat tip to newkb on this idea as I had originally overlooked the Panthers as a possible destination. They’re as good as a trade partner as any, and it makes sense with the rumours of Mark Pysyk being on the move to free up a spot for Nikita in their top 4.
I have to admit, I found it difficult to find more than a couple of teams that may be willing to take on the combination of player and contract without having holes poked in my theory very easily. While some could point towards the Dallas Stars, with players such as John Klingberg, Connor Carrick, Julius Honka and Roman Polak playing on their right side, I’d wonder how much interest they’d have.
Los Angeles, if they do as rumoured and move out Alec Martinez, while also buying out the final years of recent healthy scratch Dion Phaneuf, could use some help, but why wouldn’t they have had it all sorted out as part of the Jake Muzzin trade?
The Edmonton Oilers are desperate for defensive help, but with Adam Larsson on the right side already and Evan Bouchard likely starting there next season, adding Zaitsev may not make sense past this season.
Add the Ottawa Senators to the list of teams that could use help. Eugene Melnyk doesn’t want to pay anybody right now though…. but just wait a few years.
The list goes on, but I’ll stop it here because it’s easy to find reasons for a team to not trade for an overpaid player.
At the end of the day it may be the plan to shake loose of Zaitsev and his contract in order to trade for a defender from the Carolina Hurricanes, and I believe the best team to deal with in order to make it happen is the Detroit Red Wings. By offering players such as Connor Brown as compensation it could work for everybody. Players like Brown have historically carved out extremely successful careers for themselves in Detroit. If they do manage to trade Zaitsev just to land a player from Carolina then I’ll be impressed with Kyle Dubas’ ability to wheel and deal, because swinging one deal to make another often only exists in the dreams of fans and the media.
There’s also a new trend arising that used to be a pipe dream often seen in the comment section of another Toronto Maple Leafs site, and that’s the 3-way deal.
Can you imagine a scenario where the Leafs ended up with one of Carolinas right shot defenders and Luke Glendenning, while moving out some combination of Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Frederik Gauthier, and/or Andreas Johnsson to different teams?
Yeah, didn’t think so, and neither can I, but it’s fun to imagine anyway.