Ask any Toronto Maple Leafs fan what the biggest weakness is on the team’s roster and you’ll invariably get one answer: defence. The Leafs boast a dynamic and deep offense with marquee players like Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri carrying most of the load. Then there’s support from depth players like Tyler Bozak, Patrick Marleau, Zach Hyman and Connor Brown. In net, the Leafs have one of the league’s premier goaltenders in Frederik Anderson, even if he’s been slowed down a bit due to fatigue.
On defence though, the picture isn’t quite as rosy. Sure Morgan Rielly is an absolute stud and Jake Gardiner can have spurts of good play (sometimes followed by boneheaded giveaways though…), but the Leafs lack a true #1 or even #2 defenceman. Some fans believe that sophomore Nikita Zaitsev could emerge as the team’s top defender, even if he plays a more “under the radar” game than Rielly and Gardiner.
The 25-year-old Russian has just four goals and 12 points in 51 games this season, following a 36 point rookie season from a season ago. This season Zaitsev has been limited to just 51 games mostly due to injury and, if nothing else, Leafs fans have been given a glimpse into what the team could look like without Zaitsev in the lineup and… it’s not pretty. Zaitsev, who usually partners with the more offensive minded Gardiner, does an excellent job of clearing the front of the net and effectively acts as a release valve whenever his defensive partners gets into trouble. In short, he’s a modern day defensive defenceman.
But, since his return from a foot injury last month Zaitsev just hasn’t been the same. In fact, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said as much himself yesterday afternoon.
Ah… that explains a bit. If Zaitsev has been playing with the flu, it makes sense that he wouldn’t exactly be at his best.
No word yet on just how long Zaitsev will be out of the lineup, but it’s worth noting that the Leafs don’t play until tomorrow’s evening against the Dallas Stars. After that the Leafs travel to Buffalo to take on the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday then they host the Montreal Canadiens at the ACC on Saturday night.
The financial implications of Matthews’ injury could put Leafs in serious salary cap trouble
In case you missed it, Leafs superstar Auston Matthews skated in a full practice with his team yesterday morning, but continued to wear the vaunted red jersey rather than his usual blue or white.
For those not aware, red jerseys are reserved for injured players and are meant to signal “no contact” for teammates when running through drills. So, while it looks like Matthews isn’t yet ready to test out his injured shoulder with some physical contact, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock did offer up some encouraging news regarding Matthews’ health after practice.
That Dallas game, as TSN’s Mark Masters points out is this Thursday at the Air Canada Centre:
This means that the earlier Matthews could be back in the Leafs’ lineup would be Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres, but don’t count on it says Sportsnet reporter Chris Johnston.
“… next Tuesday’s visit to Tampa as the earliest No. 34 might play, and even then, there’s an argument to be made about the wisdom in holding him out for road games against the Lightning and Nashville Predators on March 22.”
More interestingly, Johnston reports on a potentially devastating financial development for the Leafs as it pertains to Matthews moving forward. According to Johnston, Matthews has a bonus clause in his contract that stipulates that if he finishes in the NHL’s top 10 forwards for goals-per-game, he cashes a banks a cool $2 million. With 28 goals in 53 games Matthews is currently on pace to earn his bonus, but what if he comes back in the final stretch of the season and falls out of the race?
It’s a win-lose situations for the Leafs, as obviously they want to see their superstar get back into the lineup and light the lamp heading into the postseason, but with Matthews’ other bonus’ it’s likely that the team could be faced with a $4.55 million cap hit ding for 2018-19. Oh… and the team will need to cough up money for William Nylander as he becomes a restricted free-agent.
Now, it’s never a bad problem when you have to pay out money to players who have earned the money, but it’s still a problem that Leafs management will have to plan for regardless. That extra $4.55 million could come at the expense of one of the Leafs’ pending unrestricted free-agents like James van Riemsdyk or Tyler Bozak. It will also limit what the teams options in free-agency, as well.
For now though, the team isn’t worried about the financial details. Sure, behind the scenes I’m sure there’s a plan in place, but for now all the Leafs are worried about is getting their superstar centre back to peak performance for a lengthy Stanley Cup Playoff run.