Zaitsev’s Trade Request Benefits Maple Leafs

From the moment the playoffs ended, the narrative about the Toronto Maple Leafs has been their salary cap problems. With players like Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, and Andreas Johnsson all needing contracts, the Maple Leafs will need to move pieces in order to make space. Many names have been mentioned in trade rumours, one of which is Nikita Zaitsev.

Management and fans alike would be thrilled to see Zaitsev and his $4.5 million cap hit traded, but it didn’t seem easily accomplished. With the news that he has requested a trade, the Maple Leafs might be left with no choice. However, there might be more interest than originally expected.

Zaitsev’s First NHL Season

Zaitsev was expected to be a difficult piece to move because he’s on an expensive deal with five years remaining. He signed after just one season in the NHL and his contract has turned into one of the biggest mistakes in the Maple Leafs’ rebuild. It’s unusual that a player finishing his rookie season is signed to a seven-year contract. How did this happen?

Zaitsev did not become an NHL player through normal channels. Typically, a player will be drafted, finish junior, then put some time in in the AHL before becoming a full time NHLer. He spent seven years in the KHL before signing his first NHL contract. That’s seven years of pro experience playing in the second-best league in the world.

In his final two seasons in the KHL, he put up 58 points in 103 games. His offensive acumen led to interest from the Maple Leafs, who signed him to a one-year contract, to see if his abilities would transfer to the NHL.

Nikita Zaitsev, Toronto Maple Leafs
Zaitsev performed well in his first season but quickly regressed. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

In Zaitsev’s first season in the NHL, he posted 36 points in 82 games. His point production slowed down slightly from the KHL, but that was to be expected. He was still able to put up points from the back end and made the transition to the NHL with relative ease.

Contract Signing and Regression

With Zaitsev’s first season complete, general manager Lou Lamoriello wasted no time in signing him to a contract extension, a seven-year deal with a $4.5 million cap hit. At the time, Zaitsev seemed like a safe bet to be a stable piece of the Maple Leafs’ defense for years to come. However, the contract turned sour as soon as the next season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello
Former Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello signed Zaitsev to his seven-year contract. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

In the first season under his new contract, Zaitsev put up just 13 points in 60 games. Suddenly, a player who had been contributing from the back end was contributing nothing offensively. He had injury problems that plagued him throughout the season but he wasn’t able to bounce back in the next season. In 2018-19, he played 81 games and put up a measly 14 points. That brings us to the situation we have now, with he who may have played his final game for the Maple Leafs.

Trade Request

News came out last week that Zaitsev has requested a trade. With him wanting out, the Maple Leafs have since been openly shopping him. Surprisingly, many teams have shown serious interest in him, including the Vancouver Canucks and New Jersey Devils.

Although we don’t know where Zaitsev will end up, with all the interest in him it’s unlikely that he will be with the Maple Leafs come opening night. That would be a huge benefit for the team, that will open some cap space for general manager Kyle Dubas to sign his RFAs.

Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas will be very active in the coming weeks (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

The next few weeks will be interesting for the Maple Leafs, as Dubas will look to make moves before the draft to prepare for free agency. Draft picks are important in trades, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see a trade with Zaitsev completed before the draft. If that’s the case, and the Maple Leafs can lock up Marner, Kapanen, and Johnsson quickly, the team will be in a great spot going forward.