Nikita Zaitsev’s agent, Dan Milstein, describes him as “the hardest-working hockey player” you could meet and says the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman knew hard work would eventually pay off after leaving the KHL.
That payoff came in the form of a seven-year, $31.5-million contract extension.
His new $4.5-million salary cap hit is quite a raise for the 25-year-old. Zaitsev is coming off a one-year, entry-level contract worth $925,000 that he signed with Toronto in May 2016.
“He took a significant pay cut to come on an entry-level deal and play in the NHL, specifically to play in Toronto,” Milstein told Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt Wednesday on Sportsnet 590 The Fan.
Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello told Prime Time Sports Tuesday that Zaitsev and Milstein had some leverage when working out a long-term deal because the Russian was coveted by KHL teams.
“While we did have offers to come back to the KHL, it was never an option,” Milstein explained. “He bought a one-way ticket to come to the National Hockey League and he wanted to stay here.”
Milstein, of Gold Star Sports Management Group, took over as Zaitsev’s agent this past December and first met with Lamoriello at the end of January to being preliminary contract negotiations. The two sides kept in touch right up until Tuesday when the contract was officially inked.
Zaitsev’s rookie campaign was a resounding success with head coach Mike Babcock routinely singing his praises throughout the season. Zaitsev had 36 points in 82 regular-season games and was second on the team in ice-time with an average of 22:01 per game.
“When he came here he was everything we expected,” Lamoriello said. “He was trusted. You saw the minutes he got. He was used in every situation. He’s a quality individual. He’s a family man and, for that period of time, being a defenceman at the age he’s at, we really have no problem with it. And I think we all know how important defencemen are.”
Milstein and Zaitsev, clearly, are also happy about the partnership with the Maple Leafs.
“Lou, Brendan [Shanahan] and Mike Babcock have been extremely impressive in their efforts in Toronto over the last two seasons, turning the franchise in the right direction,” Milstein added. “Under Lou and Mike there is nothing given. Everything in Toronto is earned, and certainly Nikita Zaitsev, like I said, he’s the first to come in, he’s the last one off the ice, the last one out of the locker room. He’s a worker and he has earned a spot not only on the team but also he has earned a long-term contract.”