Zajac to the Leafs Is Actually a Good Idea

Last week in his 30 Thoughts column, Elliotte Friedman wrote that the Leafs are interested in Lou Lamoriello’s former player Travis Zajac.  Immediately, I went to dismiss the idea as preposterous, but like so much in life, after thinking it through it turns out to be a much better idea than it at first seems.

Before getting into why I think it’s a good move for the Leafs to make, I would just first like to point out that the TSN story in which they quote a New Jersey writer as saying that the deal would centre around Kadri or Van Riemsdyk is absolutely ridiculous.  Unless the Leafs are also acquiring Pavel Zacha or the Devils un-protected 2016 first round pick, it’s insane to think the Leafs – who are rebuilding and have given zero indication that they’d waiver from that stance – would trade either their current best player (Kadri) or their best trade chip (JVR) for a 30 year old player on a terrible contract.  In fact, Zajac has the kind of contract you’d probably have to pay a team to take, and New Jersey doesn’t have cap issues or the need to compete this season, so I can’t see that happening either.

Why the Leafs Should Trade for Zajac

Zajac is 30 and coming off a 25 point season. He was signed as a #1 centre but certainly doesn’t provide that level of offense, but that being said, he is still a good player. By all accounts he provides leadership (and if Lamoriello likes him enough to sign him and then trade for him after his disappointing offensive crash, you know this is true), defense, puck possession skills and a bit of offense.

What you get out of Zajac is a two-way all-round player and a veteran leader, which is something the long-term outlook of the Leafs is missing. Phanuef, Lupul and Robidas don’t appear to be part of the Leafs long-term outlook, so bringing a steady leadery-type veteran who hasn’t been a part of the Leafs recent disasters seems like a reasonable thing to want to do.

new jersey devils
(Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

Steve Simmons said that if the Leafs get Zajac, “it will be the first sign that their great rebuild plan won’t be carried out,” but I disagree. At first, I thought that as well, but after thinking about it, I realized that teams need a steadying presence  like Zajac on them. If the Leafs want to get younger and build their team through the draft, having a guy like Zajac could be invaluable.

To make it clear: The Leafs trading for Zajac wouldn’t be a case of abandoning the rebuild in favor of trying to win now. It would be the next logical move in the rebuilding of the team to acquire a leader who’s played in the Cup Final, is universally appreciated as a good teammate who carries himself with professionalism.  The Leafs are in a state of transition right now, and of the players who will make up the 2015-16 version of the team, most of them will be gone when the rebuild is complete.

Zajac would be a piece who can stay for a while and help the team by setting an example for the younger players: not just off the ice, but on it. Despite falling offensive totals, Zajac is a complete player in that, even if he isn’t scoring, he chips in by helping his team maintain possession of the puck and playing an excellent defensive game.  He never stops trying and will sacrifice himself for the good of the team.

Yes, acquiring him as a top-six scorer is a bad idea, but using him (maybe as the Captain) for the next five seasons while the team works to develop a homegrown core, is an excellent idea. Zajac has only been a negative possession player once in his entire career and a very low on-ice team shooting percentage of 5.1% last season, as well a generally bad team, had a lot to do with his offense falling off a cliff last season. Historically, he produces points at even-strength and skating in the roll of third line centre on Toronto, scoring wouldn’t even matter all that much anyways.

Zajac & Jagr celebrate (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)
Zajac & Jagr celebrate (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

His Contract

The only reason that trading for Zajac wouldn’t be an excellent idea is because he still has six years on a contract that pays him almost six million per year. On the surface, this should end the idea of the Leafs acquiring him, but it’s not actually all that bad.

For one, Zajac provides a hell of a lot more than just offense, so the cap-hit isn’t as bad as it seems. For another, the cap goes up every year and now that first line centres (i.e Jonathan Toews) make $10.5 cap-hits, I don’t think $6 is terrible for a third line centre, if he’s effective. Due to inflation, every year that goes by will make that number seem better and better.

Now, it may not be “terrible” but it certainly isn’t good, and there is no way Zajac gets that contract today. However, if the Leafs acquire him, they will most likely send out players with bad contracts, which is another reason this trade makes sense. The Leafs have virtually no money committed yet to players beyond next season. Except for Jake Gardiner and the money they owe for buy-outs, the other players under contract that long figure to be moved sooner than later (JVR, Komarov, Bozak, Lupul and Phaneuf) so taking on the term of Zajac isn’t really a problem, assuming they are smarter with their cap now than they were under Nonis and Burke.

The Devils currently have over $12.5 million in cap room and no aspirations of making the Playoffs this year, so I don’t think they’re in a position to pay someone to take a bad contract, but a mutually beneficial deal could easily be worked out. The Leafs would like to be able to use some cap space to trade for more assets, but are currently up against the cap. Technically, they can go over by Horton’s $5.3 cap-hit, but they lack flexibility at the moment, is my point.

If the Leafs could get the Devils to send them Zajac in exchange for both of Lupul and Bozak, that would be an ideal situation and a perfect trade. They’d have more cap space available for this year, they’d get their man and they’d create a roster space for a PTO or rookie to make the team, both of which will help down the road.

Dion Phaneuf (Icon SMI)
Dion Phaneuf (Icon SMI)

Another option is Dion Phaneuf. His contract runs the same length as Zajacs but is slightly more expensive. Perhaps the Leafs in this scenario include a prospect like Frederick Gauthier, who would be expendable with Zajac on the roster to balance things out.

To conclude, it is my opinion that Zajac would be an excellent addition to the Leafs’ rebuild and that acquiring him would be a very astute move.

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