The pending Mitch Marner signing, whenever it happens, required the Leafs to move out some money. They did that with Patrick Marleau a little over a week ago and that continued on Canada Day as they rumoured trade came to fruition: defenceman Nikita Zaitsev was traded to Ottawa in exchange for defenceman Cody Ceci. There were some other pieces so here is the full deal:
The Senators get:
Michael Carcone (Prospect profile here)
The Leafs get:
Aaron Luchuk (Prospects profile here)
2020 Third-round pick
What the Sens get
Zaitsev often gets derided and that can sometimes be seen as a function of his contract; he has five years with an average annual value of $4.5M left on his deal. To be clear here, he’s not a good defenceman by any measurement. Whether we look at his shooting, his play-driving from Evolving-Hockey, how he moves the puck or defends the blue line from entry stats, or how he doesn’t defend the front of the net very well. So, if he doesn’t shoot, doesn’t create offence, doesn’t help in transition, doesn’t defend the blue line, and isn’t good in front of the net, what does he do? Well, he provides a cheaper salary in actual dollars than his AAV this year thanks to a signing bonus that was paid today by the Leafs, and we know that structure is catnip for Sens owner Eugene Melnyk. He’ll probably slide in on the second pair behind Dylan DeMelo and get absolutely crushed most nights. He's irrelevant for fantasy outside of depth in multi-cat leagues; someone has to block the plethora of shots the team will be giving up.
Connor Brown is a bit more useful in that he can help dig pucks in the offensive zone and isn’t bad at finding teammates. That is to say, I think he can be a decent third-liner who can help facilitate scoring a bit. All the same, he doesn’t shoot, he doesn’t rack penalty minutes, and he doesn’t hit. For fantasy purposes, even if some additional ice time at both five-on-five and on the power play comes his way, it’ll be with weaker line mates and nothing in peripherals. Don’t expect much from him in the fantasy game.
Carcone was originally acquired for Josh Leivo and has 89 points in 191 career AHL games. This seems simply like the Leafs moving out a contract.
What the Leafs get
More than anything, the Leafs get long-term flexibility. They essentially exchange Ceci for Zaitsev this year and then get rid of the term on the Zaitsev contract. There is still the possibility of arbitration and the exact Ceci situation will play itself out. For now, this looks like the Leafs trading Brown and a third-round pick to rid themselves of Zaitsev’s term. It’s a pretty shrewd move. It also frees up a spot long-term on the right side for Timothy Liljegren. He may have been on the team in 2019-20 regardless, but this leaves their right defence wide open past this season.
In a nutshell, the Leafs are probably better off with Ceci in the lineup than with Zaitsev. Zaitsev brings nothing at either end while Ceci, at the least, is fine in transition. He can carry the puck both out of his zone and into the offensive zone, and that’s something. Whether he improves defensively, I have my doubts. There are team-independent stats that show he’s just awful in his own end, starting with giving up the blue line all the way down to the front of his net, and it's a trend that spans years. But again, that’s not much different from Zaitsev, and at least he can help move the puck. He’ll play somewhere in the top-4 on a high-scoring team. He could be a 30-point defenceman which, if his plus/minus improves by playing in front of Frederik Andersen, would play very well in multi-cat leagues.
Moving on from Brown ostensibly leaves a third-line right wing spot open. We’ve seen William Nylander play there before but honestly, this felt like them making a spot for Jeremy Bracco. He had a huge year in the AHL with 79 points in 75 games and the 22-year old now has a clear path to the big club. I wonder if they leave Nylander in a checking-type role with Nazem Kadri and push Bracco right to the top-6 to get the most use out of him. The option is now there, at least.
Ben Harpur is just organizational depth at this point.
Luchuk spent half his first season as a pro in the ECHL. More organizational depth, especially for a centre in an organization with the centres that the Leafs have.
Who this helps
Leafs salary cap
Who this hurts
Senators salary cap in the long-term