Toronto Maple Leafs Are Better Without Nikita Zaitsev

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 20: Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Toronto Maple Leafs follows the puck during an NHL game against the Buffalo Sabres on March 20, 2019 at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York. Toronto won 4-2. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 20: Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Toronto Maple Leafs follows the puck during an NHL game against the Buffalo Sabres on March 20, 2019 at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York. Toronto won 4-2. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs seem to be preparing for some monumental roster changes as they head into a very unpredictable summer.

So, Nikita Zaitsev wants to be traded. That’s pretty surprising, right?

Zaitsev’s exit was looked at over the past two seasons as more of an inevitability than anything else, although few would have ever thought Zaitsev himself to be one necessitating his own departure. Frankly, it wasn’t supposed to be this easy.

Jettisoning Zaitsev (and his $4.5 million cap hit for the next five years) was meant to be at the top of the long list of difficult tasks Kyle Dubas must accomplish this summer in order to move the Maple Leafs forward. And yet, here we are.

In fact, Zaitsev requesting a trade is not unlike an employer calling an employee into their office with the intent to fire them, only for said employee to promptly announce they are quitting instead. No severance, baby! See ya.

With that established, let’s tackle something right out of the gate: trading Zaitsev is a good thing. Undeniably.

Sentiments were raised in the aftermath of last week’s announcement suggesting that the Maple Leafs will, in fact, suffer from the soon-to-be-excavated Zaitsev-sized hole on their blueline.

That is simply not true.

Want to know how I know it isn’t? All you need to do is take a gander at Zaitsev’s most consistent defence partner from each of his three seasons in Toronto; Morgan Rielly in 2016-17, Jake Gardiner in 2017-18, and Gardiner/Jake Muzzin in 2018-19. What do these players all have in common with each other? Other than being top-four defencemen in their own right, they each seemingly struggled to drive play whenever stapled to Zaitsev, only to then miraculously become possession gods in their brief instances of freedom.

Take Rielly, for example. He and Zaitsev logged a whopping 812:45 together during the 2016-17 season, most of which came on the Leafs’ top pairing. Collectively, their CF/60 at 5v5 on the year measured out at a relatively underwhelming 49.39%, per Natural StatTrick. Perfectly serviceable production given the circumstances of their deployment, but ultimately not great. And yet, in Rielly’s 522:10 spent away from Zaitsev, his numbers surged all the way up to 51.83%. Zaitsev’s, comparatively, dipped to 48.69%.

Keep in mind, this all happened during Zaitsev’s best NHL season.

But it’s Jake Gardiner‘s splits from 2017-18, however, where this divide begins to widen exponentially.

The pair’s collective CF/60 at 5v5 actually turned out to be higher than what Gardiner put forth in his time without Zaitsev; 48.94% to 48.89%. Not a big deal, right? Well, in the 218:13 Zaitsev spent away from Gardiner (are you noticing a theme here?), his even-strength Corsi craters to the shockingly low total of just 41.81%.

It’s important to understand how bad this number truly is. Flirting with a possession rating in the sub-40% mark barely constitutes an NHL-calibre player, let alone the kind worthy of a 7-year commitment worth an annual $4.5 million.

It now seems pretty obvious as to who was doing the heavy lifting here, right?

Now, let’s shift our focus over to the season that most recently was. Remember how superb Jake Muzzin looked in his initial six games spent alongside Rielly after arriving in Toronto? Those were simpler times. Those were better times. And remember how, after Mike Babcock ultimately chose to split that seemingly effective pairing up so he could fall back on his tried and tested Rielly-Hainsey duo, Muzzin’s play began to falter a bit?

Well, that was a byproduct of Muzzin being bumped down to play with Zaitsev, as the pair proceeded to spend a total of 296:43 together to the tune of a surprisingly good CF/60 at 5v5 of 51.06%.

Although, you know what comes next. We all do. Away from Muzzin, Zaitsev inevitably dipped down to 50.64%. Away from Zaitsev – and brace yourselves for this one – Muzzin exploded to a dazzling 57.12%, becoming the top-flight defenceman the Maple Leafs thought him to be all along.

Case in point; Zaitsev’s presence actively hindered the effectiveness of each upper echelon defenceman who happened to serve as his most consistent partner in every single season he’s spent in blue and white.

Remind me again how the Maple Leafs are worse off without him?

Of course, these are all just fancy numbers. Hockey men will assuredly scoff at them, emphatically pointing instead to one of Zaitsev’s many sprawling shot blocks or hefty penalty kill usage as proof of his true value.

It’s these fallbacks, funnily enough, which demonstrate exactly why Dubas will have no problem in finding a suitor for his costly anvil. Zaitsev is right-handed – already a rare commodity amongst NHL defenceman – and happens to bear a reputation that is built upon the very “grit” and “sandpaper” attributes which fuel an executive’s nostalgia.

Frame Zaitsev the right way, and he’s suddenly a “penalty kill specialist” instead of the “20-minute-a-night defenceman who routinely struggles to crack the double-digit points barrier” most know him to be. Push the right buttons, and Zaitsev is now “coming off a superb postseason showing” rather than “sitting with just a single primary assist in 80 regular season games”.

It’s all about perception. Depending on which pieces of this asset Dubas opt to focus on, and who he chooses to focus on them with, Zaitsev can be made into whatever suits the fancy of a potential suitor.

Are you telling me that Edmonton, even with Ken Holland now at the helm, wouldn’t jump at the chance to send, say, a second-round pick to Toronto in exchange for a right-shooting defenceman with postseason experience who logs heavy minutes on the penalty kill while, in addition, performing in a top-four role?

Exactly. This, of course, is all hypothetical. Maybe rival NHL GMs are on to Zaitsev’s failings over the past two seasons and view him as damaged goods. But the thought of receiving a second-rounder for Zaitsev – with zero salary retained, no less – even a few weeks ago would have been shot down immediately.

Right now, it’s a possibility. What a time to be alive.

Next. Mitch Marner is Not Different. dark

Thanks for reading!