The Toronto Maple Leafs’ season has barely come to a close and yet it’s already time for journalists and fans alike to start speculating on the team’s future. Probably the biggest part of any team’s offseason is signing contracts— and Toronto has already begun.
The Leafs just inked defenceman Nikita Zaitsev long-term to a seven-year deal worth $4.5 million per year. The signing has already been met with mixed reviews, with even the rumours a month ago riling up a certain suit-wearing 83-year-old “good Canadian” hockey analyst.
That being said, is the signing a good one for the Leafs?
When Nikita Zaitsev came to Toronto from the KHL, there was a lot of hype around him and honestly, he hasn’t disappointed. He scored 36 points in his rookie season and had the second-highest average ice time per game on the Leafs, only behind Morgan Reilly.
“But seven years, really?”
Actually, it makes sense. The thing about a seven-year deal is it’s scary because it’s so permanent. Many could argue that after only one year, why on earth would the Leafs commit to him for seven? Well the fact is when you look at the majority of good players coming off an entry-level contract, that’s what their term looks like. Yes, Zaitsev has only played one year in the NHL, but it’s not as if he has only played one year in professional hockey. He was a two-time KHL all-star and has a proven track record. If the issue is with him staying consistent long-term, there’s little reason for concern.
A seven-year deal takes Zaitsev until he’s 32 years old. That’s a great time for his contract to expire. The deal takes him right through the prime of his career and only expires as he’s starting to decline like most defencemen do in their early thirties. In the case of Morgan Reilly and James van Riemsdyk, their deals expire when they’re 28 and 29 years old respectively and have just hit their prime. If Toronto hopes to keep them after their contracts expire, it likely means six-year extensions which would take the players until they’re in their mid-thirties and are long past their prime. So with Zaitsev’s deal expiring when he’s 32 years old, it voids the last two years of “oh man, that guy’s really kneecapping us with his contract.” Would it be great to get Zaitsev for five or six years instead of seven? Sure, but perfect contracts don’t come around all that often and Zaitsev could’ve gotten seven years somewhere else instead.
Looking at other contracts on the team it seems as though the Leafs are really looking to become a contender within the next two or three years. Frederik Andersen and James van Riemsdyk are both 27 years old while Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner are 26 years old. Zaitsev is already 25 years old. All of these players are just starting to hit their prime, so Zaitsev is the perfect age for Toronto to sign him at.
“Fine, the term is alright, but $4.5 million? He’s minus-22!”
First of all, Morgan Reilly was minus-20 this year and is still considered the best defenceman on the Leafs, so before people rip into Zaitsev, just remember where Reilly’s stats sat this season. Sure Zaitsev often wasn’t great defensively, but a right-handed shot defenceman in the NHL isn’t easy to come by. Remember, the Oilers gave up Taylor Hall to bring Adam Larsson to Edmonton. Taylor Hall.
Looking at contracts of other top-four right-handed shot defencemen around the league, $4.5 million per season is pretty standard. Sami Vatanen has a cap hit of $4.875 million per year, Adam Larsson’s sits at $4.167 and Jason Demers’ matches Zaitsev at $4.5 million. Realistically, Zaitsev was always going to go for between $4-5 million per year and $4.5 is fair.
Zaitsev shouldn’t necessarily be played as a top-pair defenceman in the NHL, but he was exposed as such with the Leafs lack of depth on defence. He’s the only defenceman on Toronto’s right side who can really play on the power play and his defensive liabilities were exposed due to how much he was relied upon. Considering his age, his right-shot and the amount the Leafs were able to get him for, the deal makes sense. It’s not the perfect deal, but it makes sense. He’s one of Toronto’s top defenceman and fans shouldn’t turn against him just because of the papers he signed.