Evaluating Destinations for Nikita Zaitsev

The Nikita Zaitsev contract was always bad, and the Nikita Zaitsev contract was always movable. Both of these things can be true at the same time, thanks to the many competing and conflicting philosophies in the hockey world.

To an analytically-trained eye, the deal that the then-25-year-old Moscow native signed had disaster written all over it. Zaitsev had 36 points in his rookie NHL season, but below the team’s curve in terms of puck possession, picked up nearly a third of those points on the powerplay, and was just coming off of a late-season concussion. Nevertheless, Lou Lamoriello committed to Zaitsev for seven seasons at a cap hit of $4.5 million per year; a hefty risk to put towards a player with a limited NHL track record coming off of a pivotal injury.

Since then, the predictable has happened. Zaitsev has continued to struggle in terms of driving play, putting up back-to-back seasons with a team-relative Corsi-For percentage of -4.0%, next to no powerplay time, and under 15 points to show for it all. Further injuries and illnesses in his second year didn’t help the situation, but the reality was that the Leafs were suddenly left with a player who wasn’t driving play, wasn’t scoring goals, and wasn’t helping out the powerplay any more. His most powerful negotiating asset was no longer a part of his game.

None of the above stopped the Leafs from giving him time to play, though. Mike Babcock continued to use Zaitsev at even strength, on the penalty kill, and to close outcomes, even as his play began to dip. Some might even argue that it was because his play was starting to dip, as his biggest flaws were the sorts of things that suited the role – what was once a somewhat-slippery, dependable two-way defenceman slow became a “shutdown specialist”, who kept to the lanes he was supposed to go into, blocked shots, and dumped the puck a lot. Somehow, this led to more ice time given in high-leverage situations.

I suppose I shouldn’t say somehow. If one thing remains relatively consistent among coaches at any level, it’s that a player who follows instruction will usually get rewarded with opportunity. This is especially true on defence, which is why the best way to get a quick guess on what a defenceman’s contract will look like isn’t points, possession, wins above replacement, blocked shots, or any of the like – it’s ice time.

We see it in how panellists review the league’s top talent. We see it in cases like Cody Ceci’s, where the 25-year-old continues to struggle to create tangible benefit, but continues to get paid because he plays. We saw it just a few weeks ago with Esa Lindell. Despite having horrific underlying possession numbers (especially when not with John Klingberg), a combination of a great on-ice save percentage (thanks Ben Bishop) and an average ice time of 24:20 got him a six-year contract worth $5.8 million a year.

That deal is easily worse than Zaitsev’s (and, by the way – comes from a No State Tax team, in case we’re still pretending that it’s a significant change-changer), and should put to rest the idea that this league cannot be fooled.

This all brings us to this past week. Last Thursday, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the Leafs and Zaitsev were going to work on getting a trade done. Leafs GM Kyle Dubas confirmed that the trade was asked for by Zaitsev for “personal reasons”, which are thought to be a mixture of frustration with how he is perceived in the market and a want to be more involved as a two-way defenceman again – perhaps getting powerplay time and more offensive minutes in his next destination.

The development couldn’t be a better one for the Leafs, who are facing a tight summer in terms of Salary Cap flexibility. One would assume that management would be happy to let go of one of their biggest long-term cap liabilities if they could get a “real”, or at least non-negative return – especially if it forces the hand of their bench to play a more creative, pacier game that fits in line with the rest of the roster.

But where does he go? With the above in mind, I pulled up some info about teams throughout the league. I didn’t search for who I thought needed a player like Nikita Zaitsev – I searched for a team that might think they need a guy like Nikita Zaitsev.

The metrics used were ones that fit his reputation. I looked at:

  • Time on Ice. All situations, since we’re not going to get too fancy about breaking these down by strength. I looked at how many minutes each teams’ defence corps played according to Natural Stat Trick, and how many of those minutes come from players that are back next year (I defined this as players on the team’s main CapFriendly roster that are either signed or a Restricted Free Agent – exempting Vancouver’s Derrick Pouliot, who the team already confirmed will not receive a qualifying offer)
  • Defensive Zone Faceoffs. Same idea – teams need guys they can trust to play not just any form of minutes, but key shifts in the defensive zone. Who are the best players to start those shifts? That doesn’t matter here – at least one well-respected coach thinks Nikita Zaitsev is one of those guys, so we’re going to look at teams missing those guys.
  • Goal and Shot Metrics. Finally, some advanced stats! No, no. Just GAA and Shots Against Per Game, both all situations. We’re looking for the painstakingly, problematically obvious here. Yes, GAA is heavily influenced by shot volume and goaltending, but once again, I want what’s at the forefront of an old-school GM’s mind. Those taking the deepest of dives won’t be circling Zaitsev’s name.
  • Penalty Kill Metrics. For this, we’re using score-adjusted expected goals against relative to teammates. I hope you didn’t believe that sentence after having read the above – we’re just using Team Penalty Kill Percentage. Results-driven tactics, once again.

With that in mind, here are the teams with the most minutes and defensive-zone faceoffs to give – we’ll use them as our starting point.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings haven’t really been brought up as a potential destination for Zaitsev in the major media, but they likely deserve a lot more play then they’ve been given.

First and foremost, they’ve got the most ice time to replace in the league this summer, by a pretty significant margin. Nick Jensen was traded to Washington at the trade deadline, Niklas Kronwall is pondering retirement and it remains to be seen if they want to be giving significant shares of minutes to Dennis Cholowski and Filip Hronek again next season, or if they’d like to see them get a bit more tune-up time in Grand Rapids. Mike Green, Jonathan Ericsson, and Trevor Daley are all towards and into their mid-30s and will probably be best off with some minutes taken away from them as well.

Most interestingly, Detroit doesn’t have much money tied into defencemen long-term. In fact, Danny DeKeyser is their only commitment beyond next season, and it’s hard to see any of the UFA-aged defencemen that they have right now either coming back at all or getting a raise on their next lap. While the team has their share of iffy contracts up front (Nielsen, Abdelkader, Helm, Glendening) and on the LTIR (Franzen, Zetterberg), there is space for them to take on a contract like Zaitsev’s – the Red Wings have $13.7 million in cap space heading into this summer with only Kronwall, Luke Witkowski, and Thomas Vanek up for renewal.

Another reason to see a connection here comes via Zaitsev’s representation. His agent is Dan Milstein of Gold Star Sports Management. Milstein has made major waves over the past few years, becoming the premier agent from Russian talent. His first big client was Red Wings legend Pavel Datsyuk, who maintains a close connection with the team and played with new Detroit GM Steve Yzerman. While Milstein doesn’t have much else of a connection with the Red Wings (he did represent Alexey Marchenko while he was there), the connections to Yzerman are strong, thanks to Tampa Bay’s Russian-heavy core – Milstein represents current and former Lightning players Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Vladislav Namestnikov, Alexander Volkov, and Nikita Nesterov.

Play style is key to this equation too. While Yzerman’s teams have always been skill-oriented at the top, he has not shied away from bringing in “fundamental” defenceman in the past, or giving them contracts of substance. The Lightning under his watch employed the likes of Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn to take care of the “dirty” work, so the idea of bringing in a player like Zaitsev isn’t absurd.

Toronto is unlikely to get a significant return back if they go this route, as the Red Wings are aiming to rebuild. But they do have just enough cap flexibility that this could be an avenue to make a deal without taking back salary – perhaps the Leafs could use this to pick up an AHL player or two to restock the Marlies for next year, especially while Yzerman doesn’t have an attachment to any non-obvious players.

The one concern that I have here is that one of Yzerman’s Tampa boys is hitting unrestricted free agency in Anton Stralman. Stralman is also a steady right-handed shot who will come in the same salary cap range, and his history with Yzerman and Detroit’s history with Swedish players might be enough to entice him to

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks are another team that shed a significant amount of ice time throughout the year, and this is before the will he /won’t he stays that UFA’s provide. The Ducks traded Brandon Montour, Michael Del Zotto, Luke Schenn, and Marcus Pettersson over the course of last year and CapFriendly has the team pegged as only having four NHL defencemen signed for 2019/20 – and that’s if you’re assuming that Brendan Guhle stays up, which comes with no guarantees. For those counting, Josh Manson is their only NHL right-handed defenceman at the moment.

The biggest roadblock to a Zaitsev deal here is that the Ducks don’t have a ton of cap space, basically needing to find a backup goalie and half a defence corps for $9.1 million. A lot can change depending on the status of Patrick Eaves, who has missed most of the last two seasons with a post-viral illness. If he is unfit to play, the Ducks could either put him on LTIR to make the necessary room to acquire a player like Zaitsev or Toronto could take him back as part of the return and pair him with Nathan Horton on their LTIR.

Along the lines of that, an interesting idea for a dump-with-benefits move might be something along the lines of Zaitsev for Patrick Eaves and Chase De Leo. De Leo is an intriguing AHL player; the former Jets prospect scored 55 points in 66 games for San Diego, 42 of which were scored at even strength, tying him for 8th in the AHL and 27th on a per-game basis. Maybe you can get someone better than that (I’d love to get a player like Daniel Sprong, Sam Steel, or Max Jones, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on any of those), but at the very least, that’s another potential cheap, skilled depth player to have in the cupboard.

Vancouver Canucks

Canucks GM Jim Benning told Jeff Paterson last week that he would be prioritizing upgrades on the Vancouver blue line this summer:

My goal is to improve our defence so we don’t have to rely on [Edler] as much as we have in the past. We want him to continue to be part of our group. But if I can make our group better and if we can stay healthy on the back end and we don’t have to rely on Edler and [Chris] Tanev to play crazy minutes for us, then it gives them a break and hopefully helps them with not getting injured, too. That’s my intention this summer is to make the back end better, so I’m working toward that and we’ll see what happens in these next three or four weeks.

This sounds like the modern-era Vancouver Canucks that we know and tolerate – always a bit rebuild-conscious, but never all-in on it. Moves to improve the team and try to get into a playoff position would come as no surprise this summer, just like they were of no surprise the last few summers, even as they were unsuccessful.

My table’s rules currently have Derrick Pouliot and Alex Edler as departing; Benning insists that Pouliot is still Canucks property and that he plans on signing Edler, so they might not rank as high on the minutes lost chart if you take those comments at face value. But either way, they’re looking for upgrades. Michael Del Zotto and Erik Gudbranson’s minutes were lost via trade this year, and keeping in mind what was said about Edler and Chris Tanev’s minutes above, it’s of little doubt that they’ll try to get some minute eaters. Quinn Hughes will be that guy long-term but likely isn’t ready to be a top-pair player in his rookie season.

Some believe that the Leaf of interest in Vancouver this summer will be Jake Gardiner, as a free agent target. Maybe there’s a possibility that his long-time defensive partner gets looked at as a supplementary acquisition, but with more regular offensive assignments handed to the two?

As far as the return goes, I wonder if Vancouver is a good option if Toronto decides to move one of Andreas Johnsson or Kasperi Kapanen in another deal. If that were the case, a player that might be worth looking to is Sven Baertschi, who has two years remaining at $3.4 million. That sheds a bit of salary, a lot of years, and nets you a player who has looked pretty good as a support winger for Vancouver in the past, but hasn’t been able to stay healthy.

Dallas Stars

If it wasn’t for the fact that the Stars had Ben Bishop bailing them out in the goals against and Penalty Kill departments, I’d probably have them ranked much higher here.

The team has cap space for now – $16.4 million without any significant core pieces to replace. They’ve proven a willingness to pay for minutes in the Lindell deal, and they don’t have a second big-minute rightie behind Klingberg heading into next year. The team has also shown no hesitance in bringing in Leafs – they acquired Connor Carrick from the team in September and used him a bit, and signed Roman Polak in the summer while using him a lot.

If the Stars are willing to give Polak 19 minutes a night to have his worst season since 2012 by just about every metric, who’s to say they won’t consider the one rightie that Babcock trusted even more than Polak?

I don’t really know where to go with the return on this one. Do you take a flyer on trying to fix Valeri Nichushkin? Do you grab Julius Honka and start another hockey stats twitter civil war? Do you settle for having Jason Spezza or Mats Zuccarello’s rights for a week to see if you can pitch them on taking a massive discount to be a part of the group?

Winnipeg Jets

The Jets are an insanely tricky team to evaluate for a situation like this.

On one hand, there are all sorts of alarm bells on the minute-replacement side of things. Jacob Trouba is supposedly on the move (for real this time, everyone promises), and Tyler Myers is a month away from free agency. Those are a lot of right-handed minutes vanishing. You assume that Sami Niku will be given another opportunity to carve his niche, but his minutes will likely be offensive in nature – they’ll need someone for defensive cleanup. Dmitry Kulikov comes off the books in a year and Dustin Byfuglien probably won’t get a raise in two years.

At the same time, the Jets have to replace two significant defencemen this summer, not just one. They also have to deal with renewing or replacing players like Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Brandon Tanev, and Andrew Copp.

The nerd-twitter play here would be to try to get back Mathieu Perrault in return; his point totals aren’t ever particularly big, but he’s routinely been one of the league’s top play drivers and he isn’t afforded much trust by the Jets. Checking in to see how much the Jets really believe in Niku would be worth exploring too – I think I’d rather take a chance on his development than give him up for a player of Zaitsev’s calibre, but not every GM will have this mindset and it might be worth seeing where Kevin Cheveldayoff fits into that mix.

Ottawa Senators

The Ottawa Senators have all sorts of cap space right now. They don’t necessarily have a lot of money to spend, but they have Cap Space, and outside of fellow not-great-minute-eater Cody Ceci, there isn’t a lot of noteworthiness up for renewal this summer.

Ottawa’s lack of commitment to defensive salary right now is absurd. Until Ceci is signed, their cap commitment to NHL defenceman stands at just $4.44 million; Mark Borowiecki is the highest paid Ottawa blue-liner at $1.2 million. They don’t particularly trust a lot of these guys to eat time, either – Thomas Chabot is being run into the ground at 24:17 a night, Ceci is playing 22:34, but it falls off a cliff after that.

They need another minute man. If they can convince Erik Karlsson to forgive last summer and bring him back into the fold, that becomes their best outcome, but after that, a player like Zaitsev – who won’t need to be convinced to play for them as he’d be an acquisition, not a signing – becomes enticing.

History comes into play here as well. This wouldn’t be the first time the Senators have come up to take on a Toronto minute-eater, as the team acquired Dion Phaneuf back in the winter of 2016. Also of note is their new head coach. DJ Smith was the Leafs’ assistant coach for the entirety of Zaitsev’s time with the team and was specifically responsible for the defence corps and the penalty kill. He was likely a key influencer in how much usage Zaitsev got, and would likely be keen on having him back.

The big issue here is that the Senators don’t have much to give outside of core pieces, bad contracts, and boatloads of draft picks. But again, the Leafs are in a position where they’d like to get rid of the contract first and foremost, so you can be pretty open-minded about the specific return if they’re the only option. I’d love to get a guy like Filip Chlapik for the Marlies / bubble queue, but this isn’t a situation where pickiness is of the essence.

New York Islanders

This one is an honourable mention because according to the qualifiers we’ve used, the Islanders don’t really fit. Almost all of their defencemen are coming back this year, they had the best GAA in the league, and their penalty kill was in the middle of the pack.

All the same, it looks like the team will have a significant amount of cap space going into the summer (currently at $27.7 million available). The issue here is that the Islanders have significant forwards to lock down and/or replace (Anthony Beauvillier, Anders Lee, Michael Dal Colle, Jordan Eberle, and Valtteri Filppula leading the way), and Robin Lehner will need a new contract as well after posting a Vezina-esque comeback season and being the team’s MVP.

Whether the money is *really* there remains to be seen, but if it’s doable, I could see the Islanders at least kicking tires. Lou Lamoriello was the one who gave him the contract to begin with, he likes having as many defensive options on the roster as possible, and he’s gone to the Leaf well a few times already (Matt Martin, Leo Komarov).

Though, I have a stronger feeling that if he goes with an ex-Leaf or two on the blue line, he’d probably look short term signing. This might be more of a destination for Polak or Ron Hainsey than it would be for Zaitsev – I wouldn’t rule it out, though.

Summing it up

We didn’t really spend a lot of time talking about Zaitsev himself here – I think my stance over the years has been pretty clear. He’s a solid player who has tools, and I wonder if, with the right support and usage that compliments his all-around play, he’ll be able to overcome some of his recent roadblocks and get back on track.

The contract, of course, is rough and the Leafs don’t really have the flexibility to give him that chance. Not to mention, the vision from the boardroom seems to be one of a blue line that plays on a completely different time signature – so this mutual departure is probably for the best.

The above teams are the ones that I see as the most likely bets as a landing spot – be it due to a need for someone to eat minutes, a tie to the organization, or a little bit of both. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll definitely end up with one of those teams, that other teams don’t have an interest, or that we have any real grasp of what his value is. We can only speculate, but I hope that this exercise provided a more informed form of speculation on this situation than what we have at the base layer.

But more so, I hope Zaitsev ends up landing on his feet wherever he goes. You still root for these guys, even if they’re situational casualties. Plus he recently called out the old-school mindsets that lead to the typecasting and criticism of players like him, and that was awesome. No matter what happens, I hope for the best for him first and foremost.

The List

For those of you curious about which teams stand to lose or keep the most defensive minutes, I’ve attached the full league chart I came up with below. You must be a Faceoff Circle Subscriber to see the chart, though – consider supporting the site to gain access!

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