Senators’ Zaitsev Is Trade Bait if DeBrincat Extension Gets Done

On Jan. 1, analyst and insider Kevin Weekes of ESPN, TSN, and the NHL Network reported that the Ottawa Senators are looking to move defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, and they are willing to attach a high draft pick or prospect to make the deal work.

Zaitsev has been pushed out of the lineup due to younger, cheaper, and more effective options at the position. His contract is valued at $4.5 million for the next two seasons, and if the Sens are unable to move it, they will face many problems in the offseason, including re-signing one of their star wingers.

Alex DeBrincat’s Potential Extension Looms Large

According to CapFriendly, the Senators are projected to have roughly $17.17 million in cap space in the 2023 offseason. Notable players who are up for an extension include Shane Pinto, Erik Brannstrom, and the Senators’ big-time acquisition from this past offseason, Alex DeBrincat.

Alex DeBrincat Ottawa Senators
Alex DeBrincat, Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

All three of those players are set to be restricted free agents, so an extension for them should be in the works soon enough. Cap space may become an issue, hence the urgency to move Zaitsev and his contract.

Snipers of DeBrincat’s stature are a rare find in the modern NHL, as his 41 goals a season ago were among the best in the league. He has had to adjust this season, as his shooting percentage is currently 9.6 percent, the second-lowest mark of his career. This has resulted in him being on pace for 46 assists, which would pass his previous career-high of 37.

DeBrincat and Pinto have been key offensive contributors for the Senators recently, and they have found chemistry on the same line alongside Drake Batherson. Money Puck shows that at five-on-five the line of DeBrincat, Pinto, and Batherson has accounted for 54.5 percent of the expected goals and 53.4 percent of the shot attempts in 243 minutes.

Bottom-Feeders are Most Likely Suitors for a Potential Zaitsev Trade

In the modern NHL and the “flat-cap era”, cap space comes at a premium, and teams are not willing to throw it away if they are not getting something substantial in return. As is tradition with every “cap dump” trade scenario, the Arizona Coyotes are a team to keep an eye on.

Related: Senators Seeing Early Chemistry with DeBrincat & Giroux

Only five teams currently have the cap space to take on Zaitsev’s contract. The aforementioned Coyotes, the Buffalo Sabres, Anaheim Ducks, Detroit Red Wings, and Chicago Blackhawks. Which of those teams is the most likely to take him? The Blackhawks currently hold the worst record in the NHL at 9-25-4 and are probably looking to build assets in the middle of their rebuild. The Ducks are another one to keep tabs on, as they are 12-24-4 and firmly in the race for Connor Bedard.

The Senators have two second-round picks in 2024, which may seem like a steep price for a cap dump, but accruing space to sign key players is an extremely valuable asset in the modern NHL. Teams that are rebuilding tend to try and build up as many future assets as possible in an attempt to become competitive in the next 3-4 years.

The Market Value to Similar “Cap Dump” Trades Last Offseason

Sean Monahan was traded to the Montreal Canadiens, for “future considerations”, and a first-round pick needed to be attached in the 2025 NHL Entry Draft. The price for Zaitsev would be lower, given the lower cap hit with only two years remaining on his contract.

The Senators executed a “cap dump” of their own when they traded Matt Murray alongside a third-round pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Obviously, Murray is a goaltender, but the circumstances are extremely similar – a player that is in the $4.5 million range and has experienced a rough patch in their career.

Matt Murray Toronto Maple Leafs
Matt Murray, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The most likely scenario is that the Senators attach a second or third-round pick alongside Zaitsev to a struggling team with a boatload of cap space. How likely that is in the middle of the season is yet to be seen, but the price is going to rise as the potential of a DeBrincat extension grows closer and closer. To avoid putting themselves in a bind, the discussions on Zaitsev need to start now, which they reportedly are.

The Senators remain within striking distance of the playoffs with a record of 18-18-3 and seven points behind the New York Islanders who are currently in the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. A Zaitsev trade won’t affect that race, but it will impact how likely this core is to make the playoffs in the near future.