The Toronto Maple Leafs have been trying to find a way to unload the contract of defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who still has five years remaining at $4.5MM. It looks like the Maple Leafs have found a trade partner as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that Toronto is working with the Ottawa Senators on a trade, while Sportnet’s Chris Johnston adds that it likely will involve a swap of defensemen as Cody Ceci could find himself heading back to Toronto.
The deal may take a couple of days as it’s likely Ottawa is waiting until July 1 so that Toronto is forced to pay Zaitsev his $3MM signing bonus before pulling the trigger on the trade. Ceci will be a restricted free agent and could become an unrestricted free agent in one year. Ceci and the Senators have been trying to work out a long-term deal, but haven’t been able to come to terms, and in fact haven’t even been close, with recent rumors suggesting that Ottawa has been considering shopping him now instead.
A trade with Ottawa could be interesting as TSN’s Darren Dreger reported that Zaitsev has Ottawa on his 10-team modified no-trade list. However, the 27-year-old does have a relationship with new Senators head coach D.J. Smith, who has been an assistant coach in Toronto. That could be enough for Zaitsev to waive his no-trade clause and head to Ottawa. He has already requested a trade in the first place in hopes of getting a new opportunity somewhere else after struggling the past two years after an impressive rookie campaign. In Ottawa, he would likely take a significant role, especially if Ceci is headed the other way. The Senators do have Thomas Chabot as a top-four option and they have veteran Mark Borowiecki, but little else that is established yet, which should give Zaitsev the opportunity he is looking for.
Ceci, could be the defenseman they are looking for. The team has been looking to upgrade its defense without having to pay out any substantial money since they are up against the cap with a number of key free-agents to sign. Ceci should give Toronto that top-four defensive presence the team is looking for at a similar cost to that of Zaitsev, although it would give the team another restricted free agent that it would have to deal with this summer. Ceci finished last year with seven goals and 26 points. The team must decide whether it would want to sign Ceci to a long-term deal or allow him to go to arbitration with the possibility of losing him next season, although the team would have accomplished their goal of shedding the contract of Zaitsev, which may be the priority for Toronto at this point.
There is also the possibility that Toronto is taking on the contract with the idea of letting Ceci go to arbitration and then possibly walking away from Ceci without signing the contract, making him a free agent to free up the cap room. The team could also attempt to flip Ceci to another team as well.