Despite dealing for Jake Muzzin, the Toronto Maple Leafs could take a look at more ways of improving their blue-line ahead of the trade deadline.
Zaitsev entered the league in impressive fashion, registering 36 points in his rookie campaign and earning an astonishing $4.45 million deal that runs until 2024.
Since breaking into the league, however, things have been on a steady decline for the right-hander.
The 27-year-old, who was brought over as an offensive-minded defenceman, has registered just six total points in 49 regular season games this season, including just one goal.
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He is consistently playing over 20 minutes per game as Jake Gardiner‘s partner on the second line, with the 6-foot-2, 193 pounds blueliner having some disappointing possession stats.
Zaitsev has found himself starting in the offensive zone just 43.2 percent of the time this season and he currently holds a 48.6 percent Corsi rating.
He has blocked 99 shots and has thrown 82 hits, but had only five total takeaways leading up to the All-Star break.
Zaitsev’s contract is something that the Toronto Maple Leafs should seriously consider moving, with the Russian not living up to his early potential and now viewed as heavy baggage for a team that will need some cap help after this season.
Trading away Zaitsev should be a top priority for general manager Kyle Dubas, but finding a better replacement should be a close second – with the Philadelphia Flyers’ Radko Gudas being the ideal type of player to target at the deadline.
The 28-year-old has played the same number of games as Zaitsev but has managed to earn double the number of points (two goals and 11 assists), despite playing for a team that isn’t producing as much offensively as the Leafs.
Gudas has started in the offensive zone a similar amount to Zaitsev, currently at 43.1 percent, but is clearly able to drive play in a more positive way – holding a 53.7 percent Corsi rating, all the while playing over two minutes less per game.
The third round (66th overall) selection of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010 has also been putting his body to use far more effectively.
He has blocked 17 shots less than Zaitsev, but has thrown an impressive 155 hits while also earning 18 takeaways – more than triple the amount of times as the Leafs blueliner.
Gudas is also better at holding onto the puck, with 32 giveaways compared to Zaitsev’s 51, making him a player who can be relied on to get things moving out of his own zone more effectively.
Gudas is signed up until 2020 with a cap hit of just $3.35 million a season, a significant drop on Zaitsev’s – which will also last four years longer.
The Leafs are making an attempt to be considered legitimate contenders this season, with the addition of Muzzin a clear statement of intent from Dubas.
The Leafs need, however, to figure out their defensive depth – with Zaitsev still earning second pairing minutes when his play and his contact suggest he should be pushed further down.
Offloading Zaitsev to a defence-needy team could be the first step in allowing them to acquire a player like Gudas, with the big-bodied Czech being an ideal second pairing player on the right side.
Partnering him with Gardiner could help the American push forward more often and give himself more opportunities on the ice.
Zaitsev has unfortunately not quite lived up to high expectations after his rookie season and, with a modified no-trade clause kicking in after this season, it could be time the Toronto Maple Leafs look to replace him.
What do you think Leafs Nation? Should the team look to move Zaitsev’s contract and acquire a player such as Gudas? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.