Nikita Zaitsev has asked the Toronto Maple Leafs to pursue trade avenues in pursuit of an opportunity elsewhere, Bob McKenzie reported on Thursday afternoon.

While it rarely benefits the negotiating leverage of the GM when a player wants out via trade, not much changes too substantially here given the overall dynamic was already a challenging one as far as the Leafs’ ongoing pursuit of a potential suitor for Zaitsev’s $4.5 million AAV cap hit for the next five seasons.

Interestingly, this news comes on the heels of Zaitsev’s comments regarding the Toronto market’s harsh treatment of its defensemen just a few days ago (“Everyone said that the defense of Toronto was shit. Everybody wanted Muzzin. But he began to smear the next day. You just need to understand that this is Toronto. You will be criticized anyway because you are a defender”). We also know Leafs head coach Mike Babcock regularly raises eyebrows in the market by going out of his way in the press to defend Zaitsev and lather him in (often-times arguably undue) praise, so you don’t exactly have to read between the lines here to identify that Zaitsev has been taking some of the criticism leveled against him in the market to heart.

Zaitsev also originally came to Toronto advertised as a power-play option (with a noted slapshot) who had an offensive dimension to his game but has been used primarily in a shutdown and penalty killing role under Mike Babcock.

While some of the criticism (Don Cherry’s “He’s not a defenseman” comments chief among them) went overboard, this isn’t exactly Larry Murphy or Tomas Kaberle we are talking about, nor is he a credible power play option on a team with Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Travis Dermott, and Jake Muzzon on it. Zaitsev has played big minutes in important situations and has been paid handsomely in the process, so it’s tough to see any merit in the argument about the level of opportunity provided.

Of course, this process of attempting to move Zaitsev’s contract was already well underway as early as last offseason after Kyle Dubas took over the GM’s seat. The level of urgency to move out his contract was also only escalating in the few months prior to this development as the Leafs enter the offseason navigating significant cap obstacles, especially with the early reports on the Mitch Marner contract negotiation not sounding terribly comforting.

What’s also notable is that this request comes on the heels of Zaitsev playing arguably his best hockey as a Leaf — at least since early in his rookie season after he was coming off of his World Cup appearance for Team Russia — in the Boston series alongside Jake Muzzin, who seemed to be a stabilizing force for Zaitsev in a shutdown matchup role against the Bruins. 

Nonetheless, it wasn’t a good season overall for Zaitsev, the contract is obviously the most problematic one on the Leafs roster for an organization now entering the thick of its cap crunch, and his on-ice limitations at this point are also well known. As much as he is a strong competitor who can skate reasonably well and takes on a lot of responsibility on the PK and at 5v5, he struggles to move the puck cleanly out of his zone, experiences crises of confidence, and can quickly become a liability on the ice when he’s asked to do too much, which — in Zaitsev’s defense — has been the case basically since he arrived due to the Leafs lack of quality top-four right-handed options on the roster.

Whether the Leafs can find the right landing spot for Zaitsev is a big if and it will require some creative maneuvering, including possibly taking a contract of some kind back and/or incentivizing the acquiring team with deal-sweetening assets, be it a pick or prospect, or perhaps building a larger deal around a younger roster player (e.g. Andreas Johnsson, who is in need of a contract). There is also the salary-retention route, but dead money that can’t be moved out subsequently is certainly something the Leafs are looking to avoid at all costs.

What might help a little bit — and makes this a move that very likely doesn’t happen until July 1st at a minimum — is that Zaitsev is due a $3 million signing bonus on Canada Day, making his base salary just $1.5 million for the 2019-20 season. That said, the acquiring team would still owe Zaitsev $4.5 million a year for each of the subsequent four seasons.

McKenzie’s quote above, ”Since the league was made aware this morning of Zaitsev’s availability, there have been multiple inquiries,” certainly reads like it’s straight from Dubas in an attempt to stir up the market, so we will have to wait and see how it unfolds from here. NYI will be mentioned knowing Lou Lamoriello signed Zaitsev to the big-ticket deal in the first place, but they’re flush on the right side of their defense with Ryan Puloch, Johnny Boychuk, and Scott Mayfield in the fold (they’ve also used Thomas Hickey there in a pinch).

There is also the question of the hole it creates on the right side of the defense core if there is a deal to be made, and how the Leafs might fill that for the 2019-20 season. There is a long offseason ahead with much to be determined as far as player movement on the backend, but internally, the Leafs are not exactly flush with right-handed options within the system at the moment. 

As much as Timothy Liljegren progressed nicely in the AHL this year (despite a significant injury) while shouldering top-matchup responsibility on the Marlies in his 19-year-old season, it’s a lot to ask of him to make the jump full-time this Fall. He also hasn’t exactly lit it up production-wise with the Marlies as of yet, and you’d ideally like to see him gain more confidence offensively before making the jump, or else you risk never developing that part of his game properly (He’s also only 20 years old).

The Leafs do have options (Rielly, Muzzin, Dermott, TBD on Gardiner) and some help coming on the left side (Calle Rosen, Rasmus Sandin might also force some hard decisions), so the option of acclimating Muzzin to the right out of training camp is there, something Babcock was hesitant to do right away as Muzzin adjusted to the new team and city before Jake Gardiner’s injury took the option off the table.

In any event, irrespective of a formal trade request, this is a big off-season challenge on the plate of Kyle Dubas, who — if it wasn’t already obvious — took over the job of Leafs GM just as it got really hard.