Two Leafs named as potential offseason buy-out candidates

So long and thanks for nothing?

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In his latest column for The Athletic, Edmonton based hockey analyst Jonathan Willis surveys the entire NHL and comes up with 25 buy-out candidates for the upcoming offseason. Amongst the most obvious candidates like Ottawa Senators forward Marian Gaborik and Dallas Stars forward Jason Spezza are two surprising candidates from the Toronto Maple Leafs: Nikita Zaitsev and Matt Martin.

Say what!?

Zaitsev signed a seven year, $31.5 million contract just one year ago, but after a disappointing 13 point season in 2017-18 the 26 year old Russian blue liner could be on the chopping block. You may recall that Zaitsev burst onto the scene with the Leafs last season after signing a one year deal as an unrestricted free-agent. In his first NHL season he managed to put up a remarkable 36 points in 82 games. While Zaitsev was limited to 22 fewer games this season, compared to last, he simply wasn’t good enough when healthy. When paired with regular partner Jake Gardiner, the Leafs’ defensive zone coverage was abysmal.

Should the Leafs buy out the remaining six years on Zaitsev’s massive contract, the team would receive some immediate cap relief as his $4.5 million salary would be reduced to just $1.5 million for the next two seasons. Following that however, the cap hit would inflate back up to $4.5 for two seasons before ultimately falling back down to $2.5 million for two seasons. Officially Zaitsev would be off the books in 2024-25. Yikes.

As for Martin, the enforcer struggled to get into the Leafs’ lineup on a regular basis in 2017-18 and seems to have found himself in head coach Mike Babcock’s dog house. At this point, it makes sense for both the player and the team to move on from the four year, $10 million contract he signed two years ago.

Should the Leafs elect to buy out the remaining two seasons of Martin’s deal, they’ll be dinged with a $750,000 cap penalty for the next two seasons, offering up significant savings over his $2.5 million annual salary.

What’s your take? Do these buy out scenarios make sense? Certainly the Martin buy out is something that’s worth exploring, but given the risk involved with walking away from Zaitsev is this something that Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas should even be entertaining? Seems like a steep price to pay for something that hasn’t been definitively proven to be a mistake. Zaitsev had a bad season… it happens. Here’s hoping he can rebound in 2018-19 and put all this buy out talk to rest once and for all.