Maple Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev available to be moved

Kyle Dubas addressed reports that Nikita Zaitsev expressed his desire to be traded from the Maple Leafs.

So far, the majority of Toronto Maple Leafs off-season talk has revolved around pending-restricted-free-agent forward Mitchell Marner and what his next contract might look like.

The team also has some intriguing questions on the back end and on Thursday Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported defenceman Nikita Zaitsev is available.

Zaitsev had a rough 2018-19 campaign, finishing with 14 points in 81 games. He did lead the team in both hits and blocked shots, but his defensive lapses, particularly late in the season and during the playoffs, overshadowed most of the positive things he did with or without the puck. He had a team-high 11 turnovers in his club’s seven-game series against the Boston Bruins.

The Maple Leafs would certainly benefit from clearing salary cap space, but Zaitsev’s contract could be a difficult one to move considering the remaining term.

Zaitsev has five years left on the seven-year, $31.5-million contract former Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello gave him in 2017 after three standout seasons with CSKA Moscow in the KHL.

The Russian had zero NHL experience prior to joining the Maple Leafs and earning a $4.5-million annual cap hit.

Zaitsev impressed in his first year in the NHL, scoring 36 points and averaging 22:01 of ice-time in 82 games, but his stock has dropped since his rookie year.

The 27-year-old is the only Maple Leafs blueliner not named Morgan Rielly who’s currently signed beyond the 2019-20 campaign.

Trade-acquisition Jake Muzzin is entering the final year of his contract before reaching UFA status, as is Justin Holl, while Travis Dermott is set to burn the final year of his entry-level deal.

Fellow defencemen Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey and Martin Marincin are all pending unrestricted free agents.

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