Ottawa Senators: Reviewing The Nikita Zaitsev Trade

OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 31: Connor Brown #28 and Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Ottawa Senators chat during a break in a game against the Washington Capitals at Canadian Tire Centre on January 31, 2020 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 31: Connor Brown #28 and Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Ottawa Senators chat during a break in a game against the Washington Capitals at Canadian Tire Centre on January 31, 2020 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images) /
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Was the Nikita Zaitsev/Cody Ceci trade worth it for the Ottawa Senators?

For the Leafs, they desperately needed to save cap space (might want to replay that line in the future..ahem..flat cap) and needed to shed a contract in which they most definitely would have liked to rethink in Nikita Zaitsev. The truth is Nikita Zaitsev was never good, not in his first NHL season and especially not now. For a team now known to be one of the leaders in new age, advanced statistics, the Maple Leafs should have been using these tools to their advantage at the time.

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Nothing about Nikita Zaitsev‘s game stood out as anything close to a top 4 defenseman, yet the Leafs handed the Russian a 7 year deal worth $4.5 million dollars a year, after just one NHL season under his belt. While Zaitsev produced 36 points in his first year in the NHL (a total that he will likely never touch again), his underlying numbers did not suggest that he was anything more than a bottom pairing defenseman.

Zaitsev was never able to drive play for his team, even in his first season in the NHL he was a below average play driver at even strength (49.4% Corsi). Even relative to the 2016/2017 Maple Leaf roster he was apart of, he was still below average (-1.6 Corsi rel) meaning the Leafs were surrendering more chances when Zaitsev was on the ice vs when he was on the bench.

If your not convinced by that statistic perhaps this will convince you; Zaitsev had 25 more giveaways (58) that year, than takeaways (33) and unfortunately for Sens fans, that was one of his best ratios (yikes). Nikita Zaitsev not only got way worse offensively but also became a big liability on the ice for the Leafs. During the 2018/2019 season with the Leafs (his last season in Toronto), at even strength Zaitsev was their worst play driver (-4.0 Corsi rel) relative to his teammates. “It’s okay though Derek, Zaitsev was very steady defensively for Ottawa this season.” Wrong, in fact, Nikita was even worse for the Sens this past season when compared to his body of work with the leafs. Zaitsev was a staggering (-6.9 Corsi rel) in relative corsi numbers this season. Again  that means when Zaitsev was on the ice this season, Ottawa was surrendering way more chances against when compared to his teammates.

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On one of the leagues worst teams, he was the worst play driver at even strength play. He consistently gives up possession of the puck (-20 giveaway/takeaway ratio) to merge into his comfort zone, defending. Zaitsev often resorts to banking the puck off the boards and out as opposed to holding on to it or making a breakout pass to generate offense.

What about Cody Ceci though, surely Zaitsev is an improvement over the lack of hockey sense that Ceci glaringly demonstrated in Ottawa right? Wrong again actually. Although Ceci makes some very “in your face” mistakes and many result in a goal against, Ceci was bad yes, (-3.9 Corsi rel) relative to his team, he was actually a better play driver than Nikita Zaitsev at even strength (49.4% Corsi). His takeaway/giveaway ratio (-14), again, not good but also better than Nikita Zaitsev’s. The conclusion when comparing these two, they’re both bad. There’s no way to sugar coat it however, one of them (Ceci) has no term left on his deal, so straight up, one for one, it’s a no brainer, the Leafs won the trade. But wait…the sweetener, the saving grace, Connor Brown.

The Sens are stuck with the Zaitsev contract, it has negative trade value and there’s nothing you’re going to do about that now but they did score Connor Brown in the deal. Connor Brown had a career best season in Ottawa. Brown lead the team in scoring with 43 points in 71 GP last season. With the increase in opportunity it would appear that Brown was the saving grace in an otherwise horrible trade for Ottawa. Brown is an RFA this season and likely due for a raise although it’s important for Sens fans to put his production into perspective. If Ottawa plans to compete in a couple of years, Connor Brown should not, no, could not be considered a top 6 player for Ottawa. While Brown does some nice things defensively he does not drive play with any consistency at even strength (47.8% Corsi) and was fairly even, relative to his teammates (0.8 Corsi rel) this season. It’s crucial that the Senators don’t overvalue Connor Brown and pay him as a top 6 player. If Brown signs an extension under $4 million dollars is this trade a win for a rebuilding Ottawa team that could afford the poor contract of Nikita Zaitsev? I asked the fan base this question recently.

To little surprise most people were in favour of the trade. Some of the comments were pretty revealing though. Many Sens fans are convinced that Zaitsev is far better than Ceci and that was the premise for their answer. While Zaitsev passes the “eyeball test” because defensively he can (somewhat) read the play, it’s dangerous if Ottawa values Zaitsev as anything more than a 3rd pairing defenseman. In my opinion the Leafs shed salary and clear out an awful contract while surrendering an average, 3rd line winger in Connor Brown. For Ottawa, they take on the unmovable contract, force their best player to play with him (for way too long) and salvage some of the trade by acquiring a core, top 9 forward.