On May 2, 2016, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Nikita Zaitsev to a one-year contractworth $925,000 with another $850,000 available in performance bonuses. At the time, the signing was considered a win for the Maple Leafs. Zaitsev was a two-time All-Star in the KHL. He was expected to fit well in the NHL, and Toronto beat out a handful of other teams that were all vying for his services. Hopes were high for the then 24-year-old. Three seasons later, Zaitsev and the Maple Leafs have decided to part ways.

Nikita Zaitsev And The Toronto Maple Leafs Parting Ways

The 2016 Version Of Nikita Zaitsev

Nikita Zaitsev’s rookie season was considered a success by most. In 2016, it was predicted by WhatAllTheProsUse that it would be one of those painful years Toronto was supposed to be going through. Instead, they made the playoffs and took the  Washingon Capitals  to six games. Zaitsev’s play was one of the reasons that the team was able to overachieve. He had 36 points in 82 games. Numbers he wouldn’t be able to come close to over the next two seasons.

Lou Lamoriello, the man who signed Zaitsev in the first place, gifted the rookie defenceman a seven-year $31.5 million dollar contract as a reward for his impressive rookie season.

Seven Years Of Nikita Zaitsev

Zaitsev’s cap hit is $4.5 million per season. In 2017, the Maple Leafs had the cap room to spare. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marnerwere two years away from needing raises, raises that will likely cost the Maple Leafs over $20 million when all is said and done. William Nylander still had a year left on his entry-level contract too. Even after signing Nylander to $6.9 million a season last year (which included a cap hit of over $10 million in the 2018 season due to Nylander holding out till December), the Maple Leafs were still in a good position cap-wise. They didn’t even need to put Nathan Hortonon LTIR to recover his cap space.

Zaitsev was an RFA in 2017. Yes, he had a great rookie season. It’s easy to see people expecting him to improve on that season. He was adjusting from the KHL to the NHL. The speed of the NHL is different, the size of the rink is different. Even the language is different. How could he not improve as he got more and more used to North American hockey? Still, seven years is excessive. A bridge deal to be sure Zaitsev was the player everyone thought he was would have been prudent.

The length of Zaitsev’s second contract changed everything. He went from being a pleasant surprise the Maple Leafs could be proud of, to a player expected to perform at a certain level. If he failed to reach those expectations there would be consequences.

The Consequences

“Everyone said that the defense of Toronto was shit,” says Nikita Zaitsev, translated from sports.ru “Everybody wanted Muzzin”. But he began to smear the next day. You just need to understand that this is Toronto. You will be defrauded anyway because you are a defender.

He’s right to a degree. The spotlight is always on in Toronto. It’s not for everyone. When you’re winning and playing well, there’s probably no better place to play. If you’re not playing well, you’re going to hear about it. There’s little patience in Toronto. Just look at the booing Jake Gardiner had to deal with last season. That’s what happens in a hockey crazy market with high expectations and minimal success.

The media’s treatment of Zaitsev may be the main factor in his decision to ask for a trade. There are other reasons for the Maple Leafs why they are more than willing to accommodate his request.

Salary Cap Relief

While Zaitsev’s play in his second and third seasons wasn’t as impressive as his rookie season, they were still serviceable. He hasn’t necessarily played up to his $4.5 million dollar price tag, which is always going to be a factor in Toronto, but he hasn’t been bad. He’s also playing a position the Maple Leafs are weakest in at right-defense. The Maple Leafs would love to keep Zaitsev as a third pairing defender that can step up to the second pairing on occasion, but not at $4.5 million a year. Not with Marner apparently ready to measure his value across the league.

Dubas likes Zaitsev, Mike Babcock likes Zaitsev. They just like their RFAs more. Whatever Marner ends up getting, and expect that to be north of $10 million a year, the Maple Leafs need room for Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson too. If the Maple Leafs can trade Zaitsev without taking salary back, they should have enough to re-sign their RFAs. That’s assuming another team doesn’t do something crazy with a Marner offer sheet that the Maple Leafs are compelled to match.

Zaitsev’s Replacement

If the Maple Leafs do trade Zaitsev without bringing salary back, it may be enough to sign Marner, Kapanen, and Johnsson, but they’ll be tight against the cap ceiling. They’ll also be down a defenceman. At least one defenceman. The Maple Leafs have Morgan RiellyJake MuzzinTravis Dermott, and Justin Holl under contract for next season. They’ll need to add two more at a low cost just to get to six defenders, but they’ll need more than that for an 82-game campaign. Calle Rosen looks ready to make the jump to the NHL, but there isn’t much after him. Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljigren aren’t ready, not on a team expected to compete for a Stanley Cup. Dubas may be able to find a defenceman version of Tyler Ennis this offseason, but don’t bet on it. Without Zaitsev, the Maple Leafs defense may look considerably worse next year than it did last year.

Other Options

Players aren’t dealt with in a bubble. When Dubas is considering Marner’s contract, he’s not just thinking about Marner. He’s thinking about Johnsson and Kapanen too. Trading Zaitsev is one way to save cap space, but losing him creates a hole that needs to be filled.

It’s interesting that the Patrick Marleau rumours came about shortly after the Zaitsev rumours. If the Maple Leafs want to rid themselves of their salary cap troubles, finding nearly $11 million in cap space by trading Zaitsev and Marleau is a great option.

Trading Nikita Zaitsev alone might turn out to be bad for the team in the long run. Trading both Zaitsev and Marleau, on the other hand, is just what the team needs. It will allow Dubas the room to sign all his RFAs if he wants to sign them all. With the cap space to sign those players, it gives Dubas more control over the roster in general. He may be able to use one of those assets to add a right-handed defenceman. Trading a player like Kapanen because the team doesn’t have room to sign him will net far less than if they’re trading him to improve a different position.

Dubas has a chance to erase the errors Lamoriello made. If he does that well, the 2019 version of the Maple Leafs may be something special.