While Nikita Zaitsev is a very polarizing figure in the NHL, particularly among Toronto Maple Leafs fans, he could be a useful cog to get the Anaheim Ducks out of a bad contract by taking on a less lucrative one.
Before we start, I would like to take a moment for those that don’t want to read all the way through the article to say, and strongly stress that this is a situation the Anaheim Ducks should look at, not something that they should necessarily do. It is a situation where the Ducks might be able to benefit, but it would still be a fairly big gamble.
Nikita Zaitsev is a 27-year-old Russian defenseman (yes, I know Bob Murray, the Anaheim Ducks and Russians rarely mix) currently playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Today, per multiple sources, he has asked for a trade from the Maple Leafs in order to get a “fresh start” after a couple of rough seasons in Toronto.
Zaitsev signed with the Maple Leafs as an undrafted free agent back in 2016, prior to the current GM, Kyle Dubas, taking over. He signed a 1 year deal with the Leafs and put up an impressive season, netting 36 points. However, he did also post an awful +/- rating which, while alarming, isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Morgan Rielly had a similar +/- rating, and Jake Gardiner had a stellar +/-, and ask Maple Leafs fans how they feel about Gardiner.
Zaitsev signed a massive contract that off-season banking in a 7 year deal with an AAV of $4.5M. The following season, his offensive play dipped significantly managing only 13 points followed up by a 14 point campaign afterward. So, why on earth would should the Anaheim Ducks be interested in picking up Nakita Zaitsev? Personally, I don’t think the problem with Zaitsev is the player, I think it’s the deployment and the linemates that have been his biggest problem.
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Could Zaitsev’s Biggest Problem Be Chemistry?
During Zaitsev’s tenure with the Leafs, his most frequent linemate has been Jake Gardiner. His second most frequent linemate has been Morgan Rielly, and what we are seeing is something similar to what we see in Cam Fowler where he just can’t seem to click with those players, even if on paper they should. Zaitsev is not incompetent, and under the right coach, paired with the right guy, I think he’d thrive.
No, this may not sound like a ringing endorsement necessarily, nor a glowing review of a guy making $4.5M, but the criticism he receives might a be a bit overstated. Zaitsev has been productive everywhere he’s gone from 2012 onward, even during the recent World Championships he managed to put up 4 points in 10 games (which is roughly a 30 point pace were it an NHL season.)
His time spent in the KHL from the time he turned 20 until he left for the NHL he scored at a .48 PPG rate which is nothing to scoff at, and once Zaitsev was paired with a linemate who more suited his style towards the end of last season (once he and Jake Muzzin were paired together) his play improved pretty noticeably.
What Would it Cost?
Nevertheless, he’s still (at best) a low-end 2nd line defender who needs the right linemate to be serviceable right? True, but if Murray thinks he could be a project worth taking on, the Anaheim Ducks could entertain the possibility of trading a player like Adam Henrique to the Leafs to get Zaitsev and some sweetener (likely a 2nd round pick or something to that effect) to make up the difference in value.
The Ducks would benefit from picking up a right-handed D who has shown potential and would likely flourish in the right scenario. They would also shed $1.325M in cap hit, and both contracts have 5 years remaining on them, meaning no additional term is added. Is it perfect? No, but Murray has shown in the past to be able to take a player someone has given up on and give them a new life, and a motivated player who has already shown promise in the NHL could be a worthwhile redemption project.
Now, before anyone calls for my head, would I do this deal? I’m not so sure, I’m personally a believer in Zaitsev, I think he’s got more to give than he’s shown the last two seasons in Toronto. Am I certain that he’ll rebound enough to make this deal worthwhile? I’m not so certain. This is most definitely a situation where it’d only be plausible if Zaitsev’s a player that Murray sees something in. The optics aren’t great and I fully understand that but even if not with the Anaheim Ducks, I hope that Zaitsev turns things around and gets back on the path he was on before which was pretty solid.
So what do you think? Do you think it’s worth it to take a chance on Zaitsev or would you rather the Ducks pass on him? I’m torn but it’s certainly worth a discussion!
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