There’s a lesson to be learned from the Zaitsev trade
"We're bringing in two highly competitive players that we like as long-term fits for our team.”
That was the sentiment of Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion back in 2019, when his team acquired winger Connor Brown and defenceman Nikita Zaitsev (signed to a seven-year, $31.5-million dollar deal) from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The cost to acquire Brown and Zaitsev was minimal thanks to Zaitsev’s prohibitive contract – the Senators parted with depth defenders Cody Ceci and Ben Harpur, along with an immaterial pick and prospect package.
What makes this deal so interesting? It’s the type of trade you are seeing more of around the league; players like St. Louis defenceman Colton Parayko, just starting an eight-year contract, are already being talked about as potential deadline deals.
In the particular case of the Zaitsev trade, the Maple Leafs knew they had a bad contract on their books and were willing to give up a quality asset – in this case, Brown – to shed Zaitsev’s cap hit. At the time, Ottawa believed Zaitsev was a salvageable defender.
Four years later, Zaitsev was unceremoniously sent to the Chicago Blackhawks, and Ottawa had to pay a steeper price to shed his contract this time around. Despite the Senators chewing up more than three years on the term of his deal, the assessment of Zaitsev’s play had plunged, and the Senators could only get off his contract by attaching second- and fourth-round picks.
Zaitsev offers an important lesson: discount the term of these contracts at your own peril. Buyers of bad contracts are going to remain (and should remain) predatory on the trade market, forcing sellers to overpay to dump bad contracts. It can be lucrative, if done correctly.
But consider what Ottawa yielded from their gambit. The goodness Ottawa thought they could yield from Zaitsev and his defensive skill set never materialized; in fact, Zaitsev was a consistent negative on the ice for the Senators. More specifically, he was a consistent negative on the ice for Ottawa spanning parts of four seasons and more than 200 games:
Remarkably, at no point during Zaitsev’s tenure in Ottawa did the Senators carry a favourable expected goal differential with him on the ice. That means shots piling up in the defensive zone, generally from quality shooting areas in the interior, and limited opportunities on the attack.
When you are decisively losing the territorial battle, over and over again, you are going to see real decay in goal differentials. And while it’s true that the Ottawa team Zaitsev joined did not have the same talent level as that of Toronto, Zaitsev’s play was an anchor on the Senators’ performance for years:
This wasn’t a particular issue during the true depths of the Ottawa rebuild, when a high pick in the draft lottery was the coveted prize. But as Ottawa tried to build a more competitive roster, Zaitsev – and his contract – remained. The Senators tried to make it work for years, couldn’t, then tried to trade him for a while, and still couldn’t.
It took until Zaitsev had burned all but one season on his current deal for another rebuilding team like Chicago to consider taking on his contract, and they made the Senators pay for it.
The lesson? Teams should remain active, and in some cases outright predatory, hunting bad contracts on cap-challenged or cash-poor teams. It can be a good bit of business. But if that contract has significant term, don’t dismiss how challenging it can be to carry such a deal for a long period of time.
Eventually, you’ll want to win again. And eventually, that contract will become a challenge.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey