Toronto Maple Leafs: Why Dallas is the Destination for Nikita Zaitsev

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 6: Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates with the puck against the Ottawa Senators during the third period at the Scotiabank Arena on October 6, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 6: Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates with the puck against the Ottawa Senators during the third period at the Scotiabank Arena on October 6, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images) /

Thursday afternoon, Elliotte Friedman and Bob McKenzie dropped bombs when they broke the news that Nikita Zaitsev had requested a trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Now, a Zaitsev trade will be complex. From the Toronto Maple Leafs perspective, a deal will alleviate $4.5 million in cap space, a significant number in creating room this summer. On the flip side, it will create another hole on defense, one where Zaitsev is seemingly the only NHL quality right-handed option.

For the team acquiring Zaitsev, they will have to stomach a $4.5 million cap hit for the next five seasons. The Leafs cannot afford to retain on Zaitsev due to the term remaining on his contract, so any acquiring team will need to have space in addition to a need on defense.

Then there’s the issue of Zaitsev’s value. After two down seasons but an intriguing finish to 2018-19 and decent playoff performance, is he a positive value player? Can the Leafs get an asset from a team for Nikita Zaitsev? Or is he more like Matt Martin a year ago, where he was shipped to the New York Islanders for neutral value? Or, because of the cap hit and the remaining money on the contract, will the Leafs have to move Zaitsev at a negative value and add an asset to make a trade go through?

There is a lot of complexity to any potential Zaitsev trade, especially when you factor in the no-trade clause that kicks in on July 1.

Despite all of this, there is one team in the NHL that is a clear cut trading partner, a destination that makes almost too much sense for all parties involved.

Why Dallas is the Perfect Trading Partner for Nikita Zaitsev

The Dallas Stars enter the 2019 offseason coming off of a surprising run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After midseason turmoil when CEO Jim Lites called out star players Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn in an expletive-laden rant, the Stars rebounded to finish in the first wild-card spot and defeat the Nashville Predators in the first round. In fact, they nearly made it past the St. Louis Blues in the second round as well, forcing Game Seven double overtime.

All of that being considered, the Stars still have a ways to go in roster construction. Dallas has cap space this summer, with my projection set at just under $17 million based on a 23 man roster of players currently under contract, and only one or two significant unrestricted free agents. Up front, holes exist on both wings, where UFA Mats Zuccarello or any other host of options on the market would help significantly.

"View post on"

But our focus is the situation on the blueline. The Stars have already re-signed Esa Lindell to a six-year, $34.8-million extension. Roman Polak, Taylor Fedun, and deadline pickup Ben Lovejoy are all UFAs this summer.

On the surface, those UFAs seem insignificant. That’s before you realize Polak was a top-four defenceman for much of the year, often paired with Miro Heiskanen. Yes, a team playing Roman Polak top four minutes nearly made it to the conference finals.

We’ve established that Dallas has quite the need on the right side. On the left, a trio of Lindell, Heiskanen, and Jamie Oleksiak is at the very least NHL quality. The Stars need at least one right side addition this summer, and Nikita Zaitsev is the perfect fit.

We know Dallas likes a traditional defenceman. This season GM Jim Nill signed Polak, re-acquired Oleksiak, and acquired Fedun and Lovejoy.

This history would indicate an interest in a player such as Zaitsev, with minimal puck handling skills but a reputation for being a hard-working, penalty killing, cycle-stopping blueliner. After all, the man who gave Zaitsev his seven-year contract also brought back Roman Polak to the Toronto Maple Leafs numerous times. Zaitsev’s advanced numbers compare favourably to the Stars most recent $5.8-million signing as well.

"Zaitsev vs. Lindell"

Breaking Down a Potential Trade

Okay, so we have a fit in terms of lineup needs, cap space, and style of player. But what would a potential trade with Dallas even look like? Based on Jim Nill’s history, I would imagine a Zaitsev trade with Dallas would come at a neutral or positive value.

If a Zaitsev to Dallas deal came in a similar vein to last summers Martin for Eamon McAdam swap, two potential options could be John Nyberg or Tony Calderone, two older prospects on expiring deals for 2019-20 that underwhelmed this past campaign.

What I see as the much more likely scenario is that Nikita Zaitsev still has some positive value. With the hole at right defence becoming even more glaring without Zaitsev on the roster, getting a defenceman back would be ideal.

That brings me to pending RFA Julius Honka. Yes, Twitter meme and centerpiece of the Great Honka War of 2017, Julius Honka.

Despite very intriguing numbers at both the WHL and AHL levels, Honka has yet to break through into the Stars’ lineup in any significant capacity. He appeared in just 29 games this season, after playing in 42 the year prior. When the options in front of him were any mix of Roman Polak, Taylor Fedun, and Ben Lovejoy, it’s clear that Honka has little future in Dallas’ organization.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have few right side options that can eat NHL minutes next season. Morgan Rielly could shift over, as could Travis Dermott who is all but certain to miss most of the first few weeks of the season. Justin Holl barely played last year, Timothy Liljegren shouldn’t be rushed, and the likes of Joseph Duszak, Mac Hollowell, and Jesper Lindgren are all far from NHL ready. Honka would give the Toronto Maple Leafs significantly more depth on the right side and greatly help in supporting minutes left behind by moving Zaitsev.

(Note: Contract information from Capfriendly, RAPM graphic from Evolving-Hockey)

Overall, a Zaitsev for Honka trade is reasonable for both sides and would address areas of concern for all parties.

Next. Patrick Marleau Wants Out. dark

Toronto gets cheap depth and cap space, Dallas gets a proven NHL defenceman, and Zaitsev goes to a market where the spotlight is nowhere near as harsh as it was in Toronto. It’s a win-win-win, and the Twitter reaction would be exceptionally entertaining.