One of the biggest surprises for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, Nikita Zaitsev deserves to get a pay raise, but what approach will the organization take towards his next deal?
Meanwhile, the Leafs will also look at adding to their blueline and deciding on the backup goalie situation. Hyman’s and Brown’s contracts should be easy to get done, but Zaitsev’s could be a tough one.
Zaitsev was signed to a one-year entry-level contract that carries a $925,000 cap hit for this season. Like Hyman and Brown, Zaitsev is a restricted free agent, so the Leafs are not pressed to get him signed right away.
However, it would benefit the Leafs to get Zaitsev’s deal done sooner than later, giving them a better idea of what to spend on the blueline, with Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick likely leaving in free agency. Hyman and Brown will not command a big contract and the Leafs will have close to $20-million to work with in free agency.
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At 25-years old, Zaitsev is not your typical NHL rookie. He joined the Leafs following seven years in the KHL and has exceeded expectations, leading the Leafs in ice-time (22:36) and blocks (77), ranking fourth in hits (102) and adding 20 points in 47 games.
While he does not play as much on the penalty kill, he sees the most time at even strength and is second among Leafs’ defencemen in defensive zone start percentage, at 56.4 percent. He has handled the tough task of being matched up against top players in the league.
Head coach Mike Babcock has been surprised with Zaitsev’s progress. This is mainly because he did not see him play much, like many teams who were scouting him.
Speaking to David Alter of The Athletic, Babcock said: “You never know for sure until they get here. He’s been a real good player for us and obviously gives us a really good pairing.”
With the role he plays and the Leafs having the money to spend, it would make sense for Zaitsev to cash just like Morgan Rielly did out of his entry-level contract. (His current deal pays him $30-million over six seasons.) There is always the danger of KHL teams trying to bring Zaitsev back with a wealthy offer which could drive the price up, but Alter also wrote that he enjoys his life in Toronto.
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So what route do the Leafs pursue with Zaitsev’s contract? If they want to do a bridge deal, they could be paying him in the range of $3.5 million a year for two seasons.
Or they can try to buy some free agent years, by giving him a five-year deal. However, that will likely cost $4-4.25 million or more, depending on the term and dollar figure Zaitsev is looking for.
Given his age and the way the Leafs have managed their contracts, it makes sense to try and sign him to a long-term extension. However, it is also tough to see the Leafs paying Zaitsev more than Rielly.
Regardless, Toronto needs to get him signed to a team-friendly deal, especially with the team having to plan contracts for Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, none of which will come cheap. This is what other teams have been trying to do, like the Minnesota Wild did with Jonas Brodin.
The Leafs understand the difficulty of acquiring defencemen. In addition, there are cases to show bridge deals are not beneficial for defencemen like they are with forwards, e.g. P.K. Subban, Tyson Barrie, and Jacob Trouba.
This is the biggest decision the Leafs will have to make this offseason, especially with the implications it will have on future contracts and what they do in free agency moving forward.