Report: Nikita Zaitsev trade to the Ottawa Senators in the works

CALGARY, AB - NOVEMBER 28: Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Matthew Tkachuk #19 of the Calgary Flames battle for position in an NHL game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Scotiabank Saddledome on November 28, 2017 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators appear to have a framework of a trade in place that would send Nikita Zaitsev to Ottawa, Elliotte Friedman is reporting.

We likely won’t get the final details of this trade — if the deal goes through — until Zaitsev’s $3 million signing bonus is paid out on Monday. This is a trade the Leafs and Senators have been talking about for a little while now — at least as far back as last weekend in Vancouver, where Pierre Dorion and Kyle Dubas were spotted speaking on the draft floor. Afterward, Dorion remarked that the two were talking about a trade that may materialize in the near future.

If it’s a straight one-for-one swap, the Senators would be looking to avoid paying for the pay raise on Cody Ceci in preference of Zaitsev’s cost certainty, with Zaitsev only due $1.5 million in real salary for 2019-20 after the bonus payout. The Leafs would be in an interesting situation with Ceci, who is currently an arbitration-eligible RFA. One of the more over-exposed defensemen in the NHL over the last handful of seasons (23+ minutes/game, -60 plus/minus, 44.6 CF%, 41.7 GF% since 2016-17), he’s limited at both ends of the ice and has become something of a whipping boy in the Ottawa market. He’s a decent skater who has logged a ton of minutes, but his hockey sense, defensive abilities, and offensive impacts aren’t particularly inspiring (i.e. he doesn’t do anything particularly well) and he would be far better suited as a #5-6 on an NHL blue line. Like Zaitsev, the issue is he’s going to be paid like he’s more than that.

With a qualifying offer of $4.3 million in Ceci’s back pocket and a potential arbitration date looming later in the summer (the player’s filing deadline is July 5), the Leafs wouldn’t be saving much of anything on the cap with this swap for 2019-20. Therefore, this is likely one piece of a larger puzzle, where the Leafs will either flip him immediately, sign him to a short-term deal with a heavy up-front bonus structure and try to flip him, or potentially go through the arbitration process and make their decision afterward as to whether to walk away from the award (should Ceci file for arb), availing themselves of Zaitsev’s $4.5 million in cap space without paying a premium to do so. They could then get more aggressively involved in the free agent and trade markets to shore up what is a barren depth chart at the right defense position, including attempting to bring Ron Hainsey back, which was Kyle Dubas’ stated intention yesterday.

There is also the option to keep the 25-year-old Ceci in hopes that a change of scenery and a new role on a better team might give him a new lease on life. Dubas mentioned specifically that he wasn’t looking to move Zaitsev — and relayed as much to his agent, Dan Milstein — if he wasn’t getting right-handed defense help back in return as the Leafs aren’t in a position depth-wise to subtract from that area of their roster. But in that case, this would be a sideways trade or worse that wouldn’t make a ton of sense unless it’s simply a move to accommodate Zaitsev’s trade request and offload the remaining five years of Zaitsev’s contract (by contrast, a one-year deal on Ceci would bridge him to UFA).

Zaitsev will need to waive his no-trade clause to facilitate a move, but presumably, if talks have escalated to the point where details of the trade are leaking, he is willing or at least open to a move to Ottawa, where his former coach in DJ Smith is now running the bench as head coach.

I floated the possibility earlier today that perhaps the Leafs could trade Zaitsev to Ottawa and take back the final year of goaltender Mike Condon’s $2.4 million contract alongside a cheap, quality right-handed defenseman in Dyan DeMelo ($900k on the cap). In this scenario, the Leafs would save $1-1.5 million this season before Condon’s deal is up, at which point they would be free and clear of any cap commitments, with DeMelo set to become an RFA in 2020. However, DeMelo had a good first season in Ottawa after coming over from San Jose in the Erik Karlsson trade last Fall and is on a cheap contract, so there may not be an appetite on the Senators’ behalf to make that kind of move.

Stay tuned. It looks like the makeover of Leafs’ defense is just getting started.