The 25-year-old blueliner just completed his first NHL season after growing his game in his native Russia for the previous seven years, and Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello was more than pleased at what he saw from Zaitsev in his transition season to the North American brand of the sport.
"We felt that, after having him here a year, and certainly watching him over the last couple years, everything we thought about him was what we saw - the way he plays, the style he plays, the way he takes care of himself," Lamoriello told reporters late Tuesday afternoon. "He's in the elite category as far as how he can be used and how he's trusted, and he can really play in all situations if necessary."
Zaitsev appeared in 82 regular-season games with the Leafs in 2016-17, amassing 32 assists and 36 points to finish second among Toronto D-men in point production. He also averaged 22:01 of ice time per game, second only to veteran Morgan Rielly (22:10), and his poise and versatility made him a tremendous asset to head coach Mike Babcock. His new contract, which will extend through the 2023-24 campaign, carries an average annual value of $4.5 million. That's a value that could prove to be a big help to the Leafs as they balance their salary cap obligations and retain the services of a slew of up-and-coming young talents.
"We just felt that this was a fair cap contract," Lamoriello said, "plus the cash end of it, in the way it's structured so that we can get the maximum benefit out of where we're going to be at a given time when some of our younger players get to the point where they get out of their entry level, and into decisions we have to make. So it is a fair contract, but it is also cap-friendly."
Every NHLer has areas in which to improve after their initial season, and Zaitsev's will center around continuing to adjust to the smaller arenas and building his body to thrive in a more physically-demanding environment than the Kontinental League where he first developed.
"He came from a larger ice surface, came from a different style of play, and he adjusted tremendously throughout the year," Lamoriello said. "Even though he played 80-plus games, it's still the first year. His hockey sense isn't going to get any better - that's right up there on the top (already). It's just going to be experience and strength, as far as how to use your body. I went through that with a player in New Jersey very similar named Brian Rafalski, and I look at similarities there."
The signing of Zaitsev means the Leafs have the top three blueliners in the organization signed through the summer of 2019, but don't take that to mean Lamoriello and his management team is done building the blueline. Toronto has a number of prospects who'll push for a job - most notably, Marlies defenceman Travis Dermott - and youngsters Connor Carrick and Martin Marincin also are signed for next season. Then there are veterans Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick, both of whom are unrestricted free agents, but who could return.
In other words, there's depth and competition on the back end, and that's the way the organization likes it.
"We certainly have three individuals under contract - in Gardiner, Rielly and Zaitsev right now - that bring a certain style and certain dimension, and we have a couple of younger players, and we have a couple of free agents that we have to make decisions on," Lamoriello said. "But I think we have to add to that group, and not make decisions just for simply adding. They have to be people who come in and help. Also, I think we've got one or two players in the minors that we're going to take a real good look at - one in particular - so we definitely are looking at that."
Lamoriello also secured another member of the Leafs to a new deal for the upcoming season Tuesday when he inked forward Ben Smith to a one-year, $650,000 contract. The 28-year-old Smith had two goals and four points in 36 games with Toronto this past season, and retaining his services also allows the Buds to meet league requirements (in terms of available players) for the upcoming NHL expansion draft. But even if the Las Vegas Golden Knights choose not to select Smith, he's someone who helps the franchise in regard to job competition and the example he sets in the dressing room.
"I think we all know the type of character that Ben has, and what an asset he is to the organization," Lamoriello said. "And it's not a hidden secret that he also serves and is eligible for the expansion draft and meets the criteria. He gives depth to the organization."
Lamoriello's immediate focus now turns to the expansion draft, a process that may lead to some notable transactions - not in Toronto, but in places analysts and fans might not expect. As the NHL's most experienced GM, Lamoriello knows the addition of a new franchise creates circumstances that can result in surprising moves being made.
"You expect the unexpected," Lamoriello said. "I think that if you look at the (league's) rosters - and we all do; we look at each other's rosters - you try and put yourself in their seat. And when there are decisions that have to be made, you'd rather make them proactive rather than reactive. So people are going to be trying to do things - whether they have one too many defencemen or whether they have one too many forwards, or whether they have needs that they could possibly correct by taking a surplus off somebody else or taking a question that has to be answered.
"So I expect something to transpire. In the expansions that I've been through in the past, it certainly does. And I think the best way of saying it is…expect the unexpected. It'll come from somewhere you don't expect."