As the Toronto Raptors prepared to host the first NBA Finals game in franchise history, their hockey counterparts were making news of their own. Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas admitted that defenseman Nikita Zaitsev had requested a “fresh start” elsewhere, after Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet had broken the news a few hours earlier. Dubas wouldn’t commit to trading Zaitsev at all costs, but did tell reporters that he would try to find a landing spot if possible:
I met with Dan [Milstein, Zaitsev’s agent] here and I don’t want to get too much into the details, that’s up to Dan and Nikita on their end. That will be our goal, to try and find a fresh start for him, for his own personal and private reasons. I’ll leave that to Dan and Nikita to talk about. In the case of what it means for our team, it’s not any definitive type of, “he’s definitely not going to be back.” Especially as the year went on, especially as he was paired with [Jake] Muzzin, his value began to shine through a little bit more. His penalty killing, his right shot, he plays in our top four and he’s signed reasonably for a long time.
Already speculation has started on where Zaitsev could end up. Lance Hornby of the Toronto Sun suggests that the Ottawa Senators could be a potential fit, given their need to add salary to reach the cap floor this season. The 27-year old defenseman has five years remaining on his current contract which carries a $4.5MM cap hit. That would immediately become the Senators’ most expensive contract among defensemen, though Cody Ceci’s impending deal would likely surpass it in terms of cap hit for next season. Interestingly, Zaitsev is owed a $3MM signing bonus on July 1, reducing the cost for a team like Ottawa even further.
There is also the obvious connection to the New York Islanders, where former Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello now runs the ship. Lamoriello was an integral part in recruiting Zaitsev in the first place, and was the one who signed him to the seven-year extension after just one season in the NHL. He obviously felt at one point that the Russian defenseman was worth investing in, and perhaps he still does.
There’s no indication yet though of where Dubas would be looking, or even what kind of return he’d be after. The Maple Leafs were already likely considering a move of Zaitsev given their cap constraints this summer, with new contracts due for Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. The smooth-skating defenseman is valuable to the team, especially given his handedness, but may be too expensive to hold on to anyway. That would also mean they can’t take a lot of salary back in any deal, unless Dubas and the rest of the front office plan on cutting cap dollars somewhere else.
So where will Zaitsev end up? Will any team even come forward with a legitimate offer? Cast your vote below and let us know what you think in the comments.
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