In a move that has supporters and critics, the Maple Leafs inked blueliner Nikita Zaitsev to a seven-year deal.
While the attention of media and fans is understandably focused on post-season action, front-office transactions continue under the radar.
In the past week alone, the Maple Leafs dished out a seven-year deal to a player they hope they will be a rock-solid cornerstone of their blueline; the Hurricanes plucked another promising player from the Blackhawks, someone they project as their No. 1 goalie; and the Golden Knights landed a playmaking Russian center.
Toronto Maple Leafs
D Nikita Zaitsev signs seven-year contract extension.
C Ben Smith signs one-year contract extension.
The 25-year-old blueliner reportedly declined Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) offers to sign a $31.5-million deal that adds an annual average of $4.5 million to Toronto’s cap load. The signing – that admittedly did not fly under the radar in hockey-mad Toronto – is either the canny addition of a dependable defender at an affordable price or a bloated deal that is not supported by his rookie NHL campaign. Both opinions were expressed extensively among the Leafs’ many fans.
On the plus side, the righthand-shooting Russian competes willingly and works hard to improve. Four goals and 36 points were encouraging numbers for an NHL freshman in his North American debut. So was the durability that allowed him to play in all 82 league games, mostly with partner Jack Gardiner. His skating is good, and is expected to improve. Averaging about 22 minutes per game, he was often on the ice with opponents’ best forwards, hinting at coach Mike Babcock’s trust in him.
On the flip side, Zaitsev was inferior in several advanced metric stats, notably carry-in percentage (measuring the ability of defensemen to thwart attacking opponents at the blueline) and icing the puck, which Zaitsev did more than all other Toronto D-men.
The Leafs’ braintrust (which is quite brainy) clearly anticipates the 6-2, 194-pounder’s work ethic and existing hockey ability (including good point shot and skating) will translate into a dependable backliner. Time will tell.
- The $600,000 signing of Smith, replaced by Brian Boyle as the fourth-line center, allows Toronto to expose him in the expansion draft without the risk of losing crash-and-bash LW Matt Martin, a cornerstone of one of the best fourth lines in the NHL. If Vegas doesn’t claim him, Smith becomes an AHL Marlie and depth for the Leafs.
G Scott Darling signed to four-year contract extension.
Disgruntled with likable Swede Eddie Lack as the heir apparent to aging veteran Cam Ward, Carolina swiped the towering 6-6 Darling from chronically cap-crunched Chicago, following their acquisition of promising young forward Teuvo Teräväinen a year ago. The Hurricanes landed Darling in a trade April 29. At 28, he’s just one year younger than Lack and not exactly a prospect, although he’s been Chicago’s backup for the past three seasons and has never been an NHL starter. After posting strong NHL stats, he’ll get that opportunity in North Carolina.
Vegas Golden Knights
C Vadim Shipachyov signs two-year, entry-level contract.
Vadim Shipachyov demonstrates his little-known sniping alter-ego in the KHL playoffs a year ago.
By adding the undrafted free-agent Russian from SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL to a deal worth about $4.5 million per season, the Knights doubled the number of players they have under contract. He joins forward Reid Duke, 21.
The 6-1, 190-pound Shipachyov totaled 26 goals and 50 assists in 50 games last season, good for third in league scoring, only four points behind Ilya Kovalchuk. He had four goals and 15 assists in 17 games as he helped SKA Saint Petersburg win the league championship for the second time. In 445 KHL games, Shipachyov registered 137 goals and 275 assists for 412 points, serving as captain or alternate captain of SKA St. Petersburg the past three seasons. While the 30-year-old, currently in Europe with Team Russia at the 2017 IIHF world championship, uses quickness and soft hands to set up linemates, he suffers from Playmaker’s Syndrome, an ingrained reluctance to shoot.
D Viktor Antipin signs entry-level contract.
As expected, the 24-year-old Russian terminated his contract with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL to join the Sabres. The undersized (5-11, 179) Antipin had six goals and 24 points in 59 games in his fifth KHL season. Whetting Buffalo’s interest, he added seven goals (a high for defensemen) and 11 points in 18 post-season games as Metallurg made it to the Gagarin Cup final. After the Sabres sacked GM Tim Murray, Antipin’s deal was finalized by assistant GM Mark Jakubowski.
LW Roope Hintz signs three-year, entry-level contract.
The 20-year-old Finn had a career-high 30 points in 44 regular-season games with HIFK of SM-Liiga. Ninth in the league and first on HIFK with a career-high 19 goals in league play, the 6-3, 205-pounder led all players with 11 assists and 14 points in the playoffs, which must have appealed to Dallas, which chose him 49th overall in the 2015 NHL draft. Unless Hintz, who can also play center, has a sensational training camp, he’ll make his North American debut in the AHL. What Dallas does with UFAs Patrick Sharp and Jiri Hudler might have something to do with Hintz’s short-term NHL prospects.
Detroit Red Wings
G Matej Machovsky signs one-year, entry-level contract.
Playing for HC Plzen the past four seasons, the six-foot, 187-pounder topped the Czech Extraliga as a rookie with a .936 save percentage with a 1.67 GAA. In 178 career games, he has a 94-84 career record with a 2.23 GAA, a .923 save percentage and 14 shutouts. The Czech native is no stranger to North America after three junior campaigns in the Ontario Hockey League with the Brampton Battalion and Guelph Storm. He slots in behind frontrunner Jared Coreau and several others in the Detroit system lining up behind a muddled goaltender tandem of Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard.
Los Angeles Kings
D Oscar Fantenberg signs one-year, entry level contract.
The 25-year-old was named to the 2017 KHL all-star game, although an injury prevented him from playing. It’s not immediately apparent from his stats (three goals, 23 points and minus-3 in 44 games with expansion Sochi) why he was named an all-star. The Kings, who have been watching him for some time, like his play recognition, puck movement and physical involvement, although his skating could improve. He’s expected to work on that in the AHL.
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