Nikita Zaitsev

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Maple Leafs may look to Russia to improve defense (again)

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs confirmed that Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello recently made a visit to Russia, but they didn’t admit why they went.

It turns out that they were scoping out KHL defenseman Igor Ozhiganov, who plays for CSKA, according to Johnston and others.

Ozhiganov, 24, did not go drafted. He does, however, have some interesting NHL connections. For one thing, he suited up for the same team that Nikita Zaitsev did, so that experiment has already worked out quite well for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As you can see from the tweet above, Ozhiganov will play in the KHL through 2017-18. That’s impressive due diligence from the Leafs’ brass, although you wonder if such maneuverings might put the defenseman higher on the radars of other teams hoping to add depth to their bluelines in the future.

Raw Charge notes that Ozhiganov is a buddy of Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov, who definitely sings the defenseman’s praises. Even with Mikhail Sergachev in the mix, the Bolts are a group that will probably want to bolster their mix (especially in the uncomfortably likely event that Dan Girardi disappoints).

Either way, NHL fans will need to wait at least a season to see what Ozhiganov is capable of … and where he lands.

From ‘pain’ to playoffs, young Maple Leafs face heightened expectations next season

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This post is part of Maple Leafs Day on PHT…

In the span of a year, the Maple Leafs went from the bottom of the NHL standings and front runners in the Auston Matthews Sweepstakes to a playoff spot.

Matthews was taken first overall and made an immediate impact on opening night for a Maple Leafs team — and a fan base — in dire need of hope for a better future.

There is an abundance of hope in Toronto these days.

Matthews scored 40 goals and 69 points and won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. William Nylander and Mitch Marner were excellent in their freshman campaigns and Nazem Kadri at age 26 had his best season with career highs in goals (32) and points (61). How quickly the fortunes of an organization can turn around, though, with a lottery win and a shot at a generational talent.

Two years after coach Mike Babcock predicted “pain” for the franchise as it underwent its rebuild, the Maple Leafs made the playoffs. Then they gave the Capitals everything they could handle in six games before Toronto was eliminated.

Maple Leafs fans haven’t had much to get excited about over the years. Never mind their Stanley Cup drought that dates back to 1967. They made the playoffs only once from 2005-06 to 2015-16 and that lone postseason appearance concluded with an epic third-period, Game 7 meltdown versus the Bruins.

This past season, however, had a different feel. The future looks bright, like success beyond 2016-17 can be sustainable. It’s not just with Matthews, Nylander and Marner. On defense, the Maple Leafs have Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner, and goalie Frederik Andersen bounced back from a difficult start with his new team. He’s under contract for four more years.

Excitement brings higher expectations, for next season and beyond, as the club may be approaching a window to win a lot quicker than many would’ve predicted a year ago.

Take, for instance, today’s poll question: Will the Maple Leafs have the NHL’s best offense next season? That would be a lofty expectation. The results as of the publishing of this post were nearly 50-50.

They’ve even added notable veteran players like Dominic Moore, Ron Hainsey and, at three years and more than $18 million, Patrick Marleau to enhance their roster with more experience.

Their possible success, as is the case with every team, next season will depend on multiple factors. Will Matthews, Marner and Nylander be able to build off their impressive rookie seasons, or will there be a dreaded sophomore slump in there? It will also require their best players to stay as healthy as possible.

All three of their top young forwards were able to remain, for the most part, healthy during the regular season, with Marner playing the fewest games — at 77.

Andersen had the second most starts (66) of all NHL goalies last season, behind only Cam Talbot, and the Leafs will count on him again to provide the goaltending necessary to make the playoffs.

Pressure to win is inherent in playing hockey in Toronto.

Since the second lockout, however, the standard had been set very low. That was until last season, when Matthews and the Maple Leafs went from a painful rebuild to raising expectations.

The hockey world now waits to see if this young and talented team can handle the pressure and set the bar even higher next spring.

Orlov scores big payday — six years, $30.6 million from Caps

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Brian MacLellan hasn’t been shy about writing big checks in the aftermath of another playoff disappointment.

On Friday, the Caps GM announced the club extended d-man Dmitry Orlov to the tune of $30.6 million over the next six years. That works out to an average annual cap hit of $5.1 million — a major increase from the $2.575M he was making on his previous deal.

Orlov, 25, gets the payday after two good offensive campaigns. He scored eight goals and 29 points in ’15-16, and six goals and 33 points last year. It’s worth nothing he appeared in all 82 contests both times, and saw his TOI jump from 16:02 to 19:32.

There was also the looming specter of a possible deal coming from his native Russia. Orlov was reportedly in talks with KHL powerhouse CSKA Moscow.

The move makes Orlov Washington’s third highest-paid blueliner — behind Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik — and the only one signed beyond 2021. As mentioned above, it’s also the latest big money splash from MacLellan. Previously, he locked in T.J. Oshie with a monster eight-year, $46 million deal, one that carries a $5.75M hit.

It was understood the Russian rearguard was going to get a raise and while the AAV is a big jump, it’s in line with other contracts throughout the league. It actually comes in reasonably close to the seven-year, $31.5 million deal Toronto gave fellow Russian d-man Nikita Zaitsev, and that one came with Zaitsev having less experience at the NHL level.

Devils, Bolts and Leafs could make play for Vatanen

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The New Jersey Devils are in a good spot, for sort of a bad reason.

With the expansion draft looming, and a player like Anaheim defenseman Sami Vatanen potentially available via trade, the Devils might be able to swoop in.

Why?

Well, just consider New Jersey’s defense, where only Damon Severson is an absolute must-protect.

That’s no disrespect intended to Andy Greene, who’s been a fine defenseman in this league for a while now. But Greene also turns 35 in October. He’s no longer the offensive catalyst he used to be.

But OK, fine, let’s say the Devils protect Greene. He is their captain, after all. They’d still be able to protect another defenseman. Probably one of Ben Lovejoy or John Moore.

Again, no disrespect intended. But if the Devils could get Vatanen at a reasonable price, might they be willing to expose Lovejoy and Moore? At most, they’d only lose one of those two anyway.

A similar thing could be said about the Tampa Bay Lightning’s defense. The Bolts will obviously want to protect Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, but to add a guy like Vatanen, they might be willing to expose Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr.

Ditto for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who’d love to add another defenseman. The Leafs are going to protect Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, but they don’t have to expose Nikita Zaitsev, and losing Connor Carrick or Martin Marincin wouldn’t be a complete disaster.

Now, we’ve only used Vatanen as an example here. There could be other defensemen traded ahead of the expansion draft. Other forwards or goalies, too.

The point is, any team that adds a player prior to the expansion draft will need to be able to protect him, and some teams are better able to do that than others.

After locking up Zaitsev, Leafs hoping to ‘add’ to defense

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Add the Toronto Maple Leafs to the list of teams that would like to bolster their defense this offseason.

Yesterday, the Leafs locked up Nikita Zaitsev on a seven-year deal. They’ve also got Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner back there.

Another top-four d-man would help.

“We certainly have three individuals under contract — in Gardiner, Rielly and Zaitsev right now — that bring a certain style and certain dimension, and we have a couple of younger players, and we have a couple of free agents that we have to make decisions on,” GM Lou Lamoriello said, per NHL.com. “But I think we have to add to that group, and not make decisions just for simply adding. They have to be people who come in and help.”

Meanwhile, in Vancouver, there are newspaper columns encouraging the Canucks to shop Chris Tanev.

Or perhaps Carolina would be a good place for the Leafs to look. There’s been speculation that the Hurricanes might be willing to move Noah Hanifin.

Or maybe the expansion draft will shake something loose on another team.

But for a legitimate top-four defenseman, preferably a right shot, the Leafs will have to pay up. They’ll likely be asked to part with William Nylander. Assuming that’s a non-starter, they could always counter with Kasperi Kapanen or Carl Grundstrom, but they’d probably have to sweeten it with something else.

Again, Toronto isn’t alone in wanting to bolster its back end. Buffalo and Colorado are even more desperate to do so.

And we all know the price the Oilers paid to get Adam Larsson last summer.

Related: Are the Leafs getting into ‘go for it’ territory?