TORONTO — When defenceman Nikita Zaitsev signed his first NHL contact last spring, a one-year pact with the Toronto Maple Leafs, neither side truly knew what they were getting in the other.
Zaitsev had never played in North America, and the Leafs couldn’t be sure how the skills he refined over seven seasons in the KHL would translate.
Turns out, one year together was just the beginning. On Tuesday, the Maple Leafs made official what’s been rumoured for weeks, inking the 25-year-old blueliner to a seven-year, $31.5-million extension worth an average of $4.5 million per season through 2023-24. His contract includes up to $11 million in bonuses, with a signing bonus of $1.5 million in each of the first three seasons.
“Everything we thought about him is what [we’ve seen] - the way he plays, the style he plays, the way he takes care of himself,” general manager Lou Lamoriello said on a conference call Tuesday. “For a defenceman, we felt this was a good decision.”
Zaitsev tallied four goals and 32 assists in 82 games last season, and was second on the team in average ice time (22:01). Head coach Mike Babcock didn’t ease Zaitsev in, putting him with Morgan Rielly as the Leafs top matchup defence pair. For two young blueliners - Rielly is 23 - it was a difficult assignment at times, and resulted in team-worst plus-minus ratings of minus-22 (Zaitsev) and minus-20 (Rielly).
After Zaitsev played his worst game of the season on March 14 against the Florida Panthers (he finished minus-4), Babcock moved him to Jake Gardiner’s right side, which became the Leafs new top pairing.
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.”
Lamoriello didn’t get much of a look at Zaitsev before bringing him to Toronto, only seeing him live two or three times beforehand. Despite what he was able to accomplish in his first year that earned him the extension, there’s no question Zaitsev still has a lot to learn about tendencies of other players in the league and adapting to the NHL.
“What came quickly was his tenacity, his pushback. His compete level was higher than maybe I expected watching him,” Lamoriello said. “Once he adjusts and gets more comfortable here, it’s even going to get better. [He’s still] getting used to the smaller ice surface. Even though the played 80-plus games, it’s still the first year."
Through his agent, Dan Milstein, Zaitsev said he’s honoured and excited to be playing the prime of career in Toronto, a place he and his family have come to think of as a “second home” outside his native Moscow.
Zaitsev said he’s “never seen anything like Toronto’s world-class fans” and the passion they have for the team. Coupled with a coaching staff helmed by Babcock that plays him in all situations and “challenges him to be better,” plus a management group headed by Lamoriello that’s helped his transition to North America, Zaitsev couldn’t imagine a better fit.
“Our coaching staff, you can see the way [they used Zaitsev]. He's in an elite category as far as how he’s used and how he’s trusted,” Lamoriello said. “He can really play in all situations if necessary.”
Toronto’s defence corps will be a major focus for the organization this off-season. Gardiner, Rielly and Zaitsev are the only blueliners under long-term deals. Alexey Marchenko, Connor Carrick and Martin Marincin each have one year left on their contracts, while veterans Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak are unrestricted free agents.
“No matter where you’re at in any position, if you can get better, you have to get better. There will be a focus on that end of it with the defence,” Lamoriello said. “We certainly have three individuals under contract in Gardiner, Rielly and Zaitsev right now that bring a certain style and certain dimension. We have to add to that group, and not make decisions for simply adding. They have to be people who come in and help.”
Zaitsev was injured in Toronto’s final regular-season game against the Columbus Blue Jackets when he took a high hit from Nick Foligno. Said to be experiencing concussion symptoms, Zaitsev was cleared to return for Game 3 of the Maple Leafs first-round playoff series against the Washington Capitals.
He played in each of the next four games, averaging 21:54 time on ice while registering no points. After Toronto’s season came to an end on April 23, Zaitsev was not cleared by the Russian Hockey Federation’s medical staff to play in the world championships because he was still showing concussion symptoms.
Milstein said Tuesday Zaitsev is feeling better, and will be able to begin training for next season in two weeks.

Smith signs one-year deal
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.”
Smith originally came to Toronto in a February 2016 trade with the San Jose Sharks, and departed as a free agent for the Colorado Avalanche that off-season. He was claimed off waivers by the Maple Leafs on Oct. 24 and slotted in as the team’s fourth-line centre until a hand injury forced him to miss 18 games.