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Leafs extend Zaitsev -- seven years, $31.5 million

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs

TORONTO, CANADA - OCTOBER 02: Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Toronto Maple Leafs shoots and scores a goal during an NHL preseason game against the Montreal Canadiens at Air Canada Centre on October 2, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

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For weeks, there have been rumblings of d-man Nikita Zaitsev signing a long-term extension in Toronto.

On Tuesday, the Leafs made it official.

Zaitsev has signed a hefty seven-year, $31 million deal, the club announced. The contract carries a $4.5 million cap hit through the 2023-24 campaign.

The payday comes after an impressive first campaign in Toronto. Zaitsev, 25, was signed out of the KHL last summer on a one-year, $925,000 pact and performed well, scoring 36 points in 82 games while averaging over 22 minutes per night. The Russian rearguard missed the start of Toronto’s playoff series against Washington but returned midway, and resumed his top-four role on a pairing with Jake Gardiner.

Today’s deal moves Zaitsev ahead of Gardiner as the club’s second highest-paid blueliner. Top spot goes to Morgan Rielly, who is locked in through 2022 at $5 million annually.

As mentioned above, Zaitsev’s deal has been rumored for weeks. In early April, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock praised his first-year defenseman, hinting he’d like to see Zaitsev stay in Toronto for the long haul.

“I think he’s been an unreal player,” Babcock said. “I think he puts out tons of fires. You know, for a rookie to step into our league and do what he’s been able to do is fantastic. Unbelievable person, unbelievable pro.

“I’m hoping he’s going to be a Leaf a long time, because he’s an upper-echelon player in our league.”

In related news, the Leafs doled out another contract on Tuesday. Depth forward Ben Smith signed a one-year deal worth $650,000. Smith appeared in 36 games for Toronto this season, scoring four points.