This past spring, before he was set to become a restricted free agent, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Nikita Zaitsev to a seven-year, $31.5 million deal. The $4.5 million average may have not been surprising then, seeing that he was a 25-year-old right-handed defenseman who led all rookie defenders in time on ice per game, but still, his contract got a lot of people talking, including controversial TV Host Don Cherry before the blue liner put ink to paper.
“He’s not tough,” Cherry said last April .“This guy is minus-21. On a team that is going to the playoffs he’s the biggest minus on the whole club. He’s got 32 minutes in penalties, so he’s a sweetheart. He plays every power play and he’s got one goal (on the man advantage).
“So he’s not tough, he’s got one goal, he’s minus-21, and he’s going to sign a seven-year contract. It’s unbelievable a guy can get a seven-year contract and be minus-21,” Cherry had added.
And if it was an issue then for Cherry and many other insiders, it is a bigger one this time around. James Mirtle of The Athletic joined TSN's Landsberg in the Morning on Wednesday to reveal how much of a problem Zaitsev's contract remains and how complicated it will get in the upcoming season.
"It's bad, it's really bad," Mirtle started off. "Last year, there was a debate on how good is this guy? Is he a top pair defenseman, is he a second pair defenseman, or even is he a third pair defenseman, and a lot of the analytics guys were saying that he is a third pair defenseman. But they're right, he hasn't had a very good year this year, and part of the problem is that Mike Babcock is playing against some of the other teams' top line. He played him for over 24 minutes last night, that's a lot of minutes for a guy that looks like he is in over his head.
"With the Leafs potentially running into some major cap problems by 2019, his contract could be a problem."
Now looking forward, next year’s roster might end up looking quite different due to the poor position they’re in regarding the salary cap. This summer only, they need to focus on top forward William Nylander, while keeping in mind that star player Auston Matthews, forward Mitch Marner and defenseman Morgen Reilly are all set to become restricted free agents in the summer of 2019.
And it does not end there... After Nylander, Matthews, Marner and Gardiner are paid for, there’s still the issue of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov and potentially Dominic Moore. There is also a possibility that some young prospects crack the main roster, each getting a maximum of $925,000 per year.
Zaitsev's contract sure looks like a big issue now... Unless he can step up and prove to Babcock and management that he is the top pairing defender they want him to be.
Maybe his recent injury is not helping: since returning from his foot injury, the Russian defender has been on the ice for the most goals against. It the Maple Leafs cannot get Zaitsev back on track in time before the postseason, it will put more pressure on management to find a way to keep their best players on board, despite the defensemen's hefty contract...