Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev signed a seven-year, $31.5 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday.  It has an AAV of $4.5 million through the 2023-24 season.

Zaitsev, 25, had 36 points (four goals, 32 assists) in 82 regular-season games and averaged 22:01 per game, second on the Maple Leafs. He was one of six rookies to play at least 75 games for Toronto this season, helping them qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2013.

“We felt that after having him here a year and certainly watching him over the last couple of years, everything we thought about him was what we saw,” Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello said. “The way he plays, the style he plays, the way he takes care of himself, for a defenseman, we felt this was a good decision.

“He’s in an elite category as far as how he can be used and how he’s trusted, and can really play in all situations if necessary.”

Zaitsev’s contract includes up to $11 million in bonuses, with a signing bonus of $1.5 million in each of the first three seasons.

To invest so many years in a player with comparatively little NHL experience may seem like a risky move by the Maple Leafs, but Lamoriello is confident it’s in the best interest of the organization long term.

“There are two sides to the table when you make [those] negotiations in contracts, so we came up with this, [which] is what he felt he needed and we felt was fair,” Lamoriello said. “Would six be better? Who knows? But it’s seven. It’s a fair contract, but it’s also cap-friendly. Plus…the way it’s structured [gives us] 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’re out of their entry-level [deals] and into decisions we have to make.”

The Maple Leafs also announced Tuesday that forward Ben Smith has signed a one-year deal worth $650,000.

Re-signing Smith gives Toronto a forward to expose in this summer’s expansion draft. Along with a defenceman and goaltender, the Maple Leafs must expose two forwards who are signed through next season and who played either 40 games last season, or 70 games over the previous two seasons. Smith skated in 40 games for Toronto in 2016-17, registering two goals and two assists.

“It’s not a hidden secret that he also is eligible for and meets the criteria for the expansion draft,” Lamoriello said Tuesday. “There was a combination of reasons for this [signing]. He gives depth to the organization.”


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