Toronto Maple Leafs: What Will A Zaitsev Contract Look Like?

Toronto Maple Leafs defender Nikita Zaitsev is here only on a one year contract, and he’s been getting a lot of work on the back end so far.

Now that we’re halfway through the season, where does Zaitsev stand for a new contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Zaitsev’s ceiling is going to be, and whether or not his prime years will be extended on account of his late arrival to the NHL – though, historically, father time catches NHLers before they hit 30 and their decline begins.

Toronto is razor thin on defense and Zaitsev is viewed as an integral part of that small group moving forward. He provides a right shot, puck moving blueliner that the Leafs need. That being said, he hasn’t exactly earned himself a significant raise near the Morgan Rielly salary number of $5M.

Zaitsev has a P60 at 5v5 of 0.94, placing him in good company for offensive scoring in that category. He’s immediately above Rielly and Ekholm, and below Pietrangelo and Forbort. It’s one of the few categories where Zaitsev ranks fairly high in. (All comparisons are among minimum 700 TOI defenders at 5v5)

His offensive production isn’t a product of driving the play while he’s on the ice, though. Every player who has played above 100 minutes at 5v5 with Zaitsev has better possession numbers away from him than he does away from them.

He’s sporting a negative goals-for percentage and corsi-for percentage, both relative, which places him near Niklas Hjalmarsson as a common comparable in those categories.

He allows more shots against per 60 while he’s on the ice relative to the team, and produces less shots for per 60 relative. Luca Sbisa and Cody Ceci are common here, with Hjalmarsson showing up close by again.

For scoring chances, which is an expectation of Zaitsev given his background from the KHL, he’s struggled mightily. Only Kevin Bieksa has a worse number than Zaitsev among defenders with a minimum TOI of 700.

If we’re looking for a contract number to find for Zaitsev, he seems to be around the numbers of Hjalmarsson, Ceci, Sbisa and Ben Lovejoy more frequently than others. He’s close to Hjalmarsson than the others, which is fair given his higher point totals at even strength than the other three.

That spread brings Zaitsev between $2.66M and $4.1M.

Is he worth $4.1M right now? I’d say no, at least not on anything beyond a two year deal that enters Matthews/Marner renewal territory. As much as we want to believe that age isn’t a factor, we have to remember the contract he gets will be an important one. A four year deal for Zaitsev would take him to age 29, with 30 coming only weeks into a fifth year.

Morgan Rielly’s contract takes him to age 28, and there’s a good reason for that. That’s around the time the decline for most players begins and you start paying a player more than he deserves. That’s the cost of doing business in unrestricted free agency, but it’s something you want to avoid in-house.

A three year deal with a maximum ceiling of $4M might be in the neighborhood of ideal risk for the Leafs. He’s made a lot of good strides this year so far but hasn’t shown enough to warrant much more money than that. His age places him in a dangerous place when you get beyond a three year commitment. If Toronto didn’t consider age, wouldn’t Rielly have received eight years instead of six?

Consider it a three year bridge, only the bridge probably leads out of Toronto if he wants much more than $4M after age 28.

The Leafs are a cap conscious team that has made good moves since Brendan Shanahan took over and put his front office team in place. A 3 year x $3.5-$4M per deal could turn out to be one of the best deals around for a defender if Zaitsev gets much better, but at the very worst it won’t be a deal that causes any long-term grief or cap-constraints during its length.

*player comparisons from data

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