It had long been reported that Nikita Zaitsev was destined for a new home, and after spending the early part of their off-season attempting to find a fit for the defenseman, the Toronto Maple Leafs have sent the rearguard – as well as the final five seasons of his seven-year, $31.5-million contract – to the Ottawa Senators as part of a six-piece deal.
The complete trade, with sweeteners and throw-ins included, sees Zaitsev land in Canada’s capital along with winger Connor Brown and prospect Michael Carcone. In exchange, the Maple Leafs landed defensemen Cody Ceci and Ben Harpur, prospect Aaron Luchuk and a third-round pick in 2020, which originally belonged to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
From Toronto’s standpoint, the reasoning for the deal is clear. The Maple Leafs were in need of cost cutting and it was evident that Zaitsev, in the middle of what has turned out to be a somewhat regrettable contract, was no longer a fit on the blueline. Signed to his long-term pact one year after he had been brought over from the KHL and on the heels of a stellar four-goal, 32-point campaign, Zaitsev’s game has fallen off over the past two seasons. Not only has he seen his minutes dip, dropping from an average of 22:06 per game across his first two seasons to 20:28 during the 2018-19 campaign, but his offense has declined steadily, as well. This past season, Zaitsev notched three goals and 14 points, and paying him $4.5-million per season for another five years wasn’t going to work for Toronto.
It is, however, going to work for Ottawa, where salary cap space isn’t nearly as scarce and fixed costs are desirable for a rebuilding organization. Though being locked into Zaitsev’s deal for another five campaigns isn’t ideal, the Senators can afford to pay up given their back end doesn’t currently have a single defenseman other than Zaitsev who counts against the cap for more than $1.2 million. Not only that, but with the scarcity of proven NHL-caliber rearguards in Ottawa, adding Zaitsev gives the Senators a definite boost on their second pairing, though that might not be saying all that much.
By aiding Toronto in their attempt to rid themselves of Zaitsev’s contract, too, Ottawa was able to add to their attack. While Brown is coming off of the worst goal-scoring season of his three full campaigns in the NHL – he found twine only eight times in 2018-19 – he’s managed 42 goals since making the leap to the big league in 2016-17 and his average offensive output over the past three seasons is 14 goals and 31 points. Signed for one more season at $2.1 million and a restricted free agent following that, Brown can be a useful asset in the middle- or bottom-six of the Senators’ lineup.
As far as the Maple Leafs are concerned, though, the real value in the swap isn’t in the players acquired but the cap space that is freed up both in short and long term. At the moment the trade was completed, Toronto opened up somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million in spending room and the only contract assumed was Harpur’s one-year pact at $725,000. That said, TSN’s Darren Dreger reported Ceci will sign a one-year deal with the Maple Leafs at $4.5 million, and while that eats up all but $1.4 million of the acquired cap space, it gets Toronto off the hook for the additional $4.5 million they would have had to pay Zaitsev moving forward.
Overall, even with Ceci at exactly the same cap hit as Zaitsev, the Maple Leafs will enter the beginning of signing season with roughly $7 million with which to work and are projected to have upwards of $25 million next summer. That’s the real win here for Toronto, particularly in the midst of their current cap difficulties. And if Brown had to go along with Zaitsev in order to make the deal happen – an addition with which the Senators will be pleased and one that surely was necessary in order for Ottawa to take on the money and term – then that was simply the cost of doing business in the salary cap era.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.