Cap comparables: Did Maple Leafs overpay for Nikita Zaitsev?

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman joins Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup to discuss Nikita Zaitsev’s unofficial 7-year deal with the Maple Leafs.

One day we’ll see Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander sign long-term extensions, but on Tuesday the Toronto Maple Leafs locked up a different key piece of their future. Nikita Zaitsev inked a seven-year, $31.5-million contract extension, which means a salary cap hit of $4.5 million per season.

The Russian defenceman is coming off his entry-level contract worth $925,000, which came with as much as $850,000 in performance bonuses. He was slated to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season.

Zaitsev exceeded expectations in 2016-17, registering 36 points in 82 regular-season games and ranking second on the team in ice-time with an average of 22:01 per game. Head coach Mike Babcock has sang Zaitsev’s praises ever since the team signed him as a free agent in 2016 after he spent three seasons with CSKA Moscow in the KHL.

Although his rookie campaign was widely viewed as positive, there is still plenty of room for Zaitsev to improve.

Zaitsev is different than many of his peers in the sense that he was an older, undrafted free agent whose first contract was a one-year entry-level deal. With that in mind, here are a handful of players around the NHL with similar contracts that Zaitsev will likely be compared to in the coming years.

Morgan Rielly (six years, $30 million, $5 million cap hit)
&
Jake Gardiner (five years, $20.25 million, $4.05 million cap hit)

It’s only natural that Zaitsev will be compared to his teammates and, being a right-handed shot, he has developed some chemistry with both lefties this year. He played most of the season with Rielly, although Babcock switched up the Leafs’ defence pairings in March following an embarrassing blowout loss to the Panthers. Since then Zaitsev primarily played with Gardiner and it worked out well as the Leafs went 9-4-1 down the stretch and qualified for the post-season.

Oscar Klefbom (seven years, $29.169 million, $4.167 million cap hit)
&
Adam Larsson (six years, $25 million, $4,166,667 cap hit)

The Maple Leafs and Oilers will constantly be compared to one another since both franchises are beginning to turn things around thanks to a tear-it-all-down managerial strategy, plus a couple vital draft lottery wins. On defence, a Klefbom-Larsson pairing should be equally important to the Oilers in the years to come as a Rielly-Zaitsev pairing will be to Toronto. Stylistically speaking, Zaitsev is closer to the right-handed Larsson even though Larsson is more refined in his own end. Statistically, Zaitsev is more similar to Klefbom.

Sami Vatanen (four years, $19.5 million, $4.875 million cap hit)

Zaitsev has had the benefit of playing on the right side of smooth skaters like Rielly and Gardiner. Vatanen, on the other hand, doesn’t play beside Hampus Lindholm or Cam Fowler as often as you’d think he would. Instead, Vatanen, a righty, spent much of the season on the left side of a pairing with Kevin Bieksa. Luckily for Zaitsev, he didn’t have to play on his opposite side much as a rookie. This has been a contributing factor in Vatanen’s drastic drop in production compared to the last two seasons. It’s disappointing for the Ducks considering Vatanen is in the first year of his deal.

Justin Faulk (six years, $29 million, $4,833,333 cap hit)

Zaitsev doesn’t have the reputation of being a power-play quarterback the way Faulk does, however he finished the season with just one fewer point than Faulk both at even strength and with the man advantage. Faulk played seven fewer games than Zaitsev but logged 40 more minutes of power-play ice-time.

John Klingberg (seven years, $29.75 million, $4.25 million cap hit)

The big Swede is more offensively gifted than the more physical Zaitsev yet both are similar in the way they effectively get pucks through to the net and stick check. Klingberg took a slight step backwards in his third season, but that appears to be a result of his team as a whole being much worse than they were in 2015-16.

David Savard (five years, $21.25 million, $4.25 million cap hit)

With the 2016 acquisition of Seth Jones and the emergence of Zach Werenski, there isn’t as much pressure on Savard as there was a couple years ago yet he remains one of the better young blue-liners in the East. Of everyone mentioned here, Savard is the player who most closely resembles Zaitsev in terms of style, production, age and AAV. His extension kicked in at the beginning of this season after inking it prior to the final year of his bridge deal.

Other cap comparables:
— Zach Bogosian, seven years, $36 million, $5.14 million cap hit
— Alexander Edler, six years, $30 million, $5 million cap hit
— Ryan McDonagh, six years, $28.2 million, $4.7 million cap hit
— TJ Brodie, five years, $23.5 million, $4,650,400 cap hit
— Jason Garrison, six years, $27.6 million, $4.6 million cap hit
— Anton Stralman, five years, $22.5 million, $4.5 million cap hit
— Jason Demers, five years, $22.5 million, $4.5 million cap hit
— Christopher Tanev, five years, $22.25 million, $4.45 million cap hit
— Jack Johnson, seven years, $30.5 million, $4,357,143 cap hit
— Marc-Edouard Vlasic, five years, $21.25 million, $4.25 million cap hit
— Jonas Brodin, six years, $25 million, $4,166,667 cap hit
— Roman Josi, seven years, $28 million, $4 million cap hit
— Marco Scandella, five years, $20 million, $4 million cap hit
— Travis Hamonic, seven years, $27 million, $3,857,143 cap hit

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