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Maple Leafs trade Zaitsev, Brown to Senators for Ceci in six-player deal

FILE - In this April 1, 2019, file photo, Toronto Maple Leafs' Nikita Zaitsev skates with the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders, in Uniondale, N.Y. The Toronto Maple Leafs acquired defenseman Cody Ceci, a 2020 third-round pick and minor leaguers Ben Harpur and Aaron Luchuk from the Ottawa Senators for defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, forward Connor Brown and minor leaguer Michael Carcone. The teams announced the trade early on Monday, July 1, 2019, roughly three and a half hours before the start of free agency. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

The Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs have swapped underperforming defencemen.

The provincial rivals completed a deal that had been rumoured for nearly 48 hours on Monday, with Toronto trading Nikita Zaitsev to Ottawa for fellow blue-liner Cody Ceci.

The Senators also got forwards Connor Brown and Michael Carcone in the exchange, while the Leafs received defenceman Ben Harpur, centre Aaron Luchuk and a third-round pick that originally belonged to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The trade is important for the Leafs because it gets Zaitsev’s contract – which carries an annual average value of US$4.5 million for the next five seasons – off the books as the team facing a salary cap crunch looks to sign restricted free agent Mitch Marner and potentially add cheaper pieces to round out its roster.

Brown is scheduled to make $2.1 million in 2019-20 and is set to become an RFA next summer.

The cap for the coming season has been set at $81.5 million, down from an earlier projection of roughly $83 million.

Ottawa, meanwhile, is at the opposite end of the spectrum, needing to increase its wage bill to get to the cap floor of $62.2 million.

Zaitsev, who was due a $3-million signing bonus Monday, had to waive his limited no-movement clause for the trade to be completed.

The 27-year-old produced an impressive rookie campaign with Toronto in 2015-16, registering four goals and 36 points in 82 games. But his play has fallen off drastically in the two seasons since with just eight goals and 27 points in 141 outings to go along with two assists in 18 playoff games.

Zaitsev signed a seven-year, $31.5-million contract with the Leafs in the summer of 2016.

Toronto managed to shed veteran winger Patrick Marleau and his $6.25 million salary when the Leafs traded him along with a lottery-protected first-round draft pick and a seventh-rounder in 2020 to the Carolina Hurricanes last month. Carolina, which sent a sixth-round selection in 2020 the other way in the deal, bought Marleau out last week, making him an unrestricted free agent.

Much like Zaitsev, the 25-year-old Ceci has been a lightning rod for criticism related to his poor performances in the nation’s capital. The Ottawa native has 32 goals and 118 points in 440 career regular-season games, and has added three assists in 25 playoff contests.

An RFA with arbitration rights, Ceci was extended a qualifying offer by Ottawa last month. He made $4.3 million in 2018-19 and is set to become an UFA next summer.

Brown, 25, has 43 goals and 99 points in 253 career regular-season games to go along with five points (one goal, four assists) in 20 playoff contests. Selected in the sixth round of the 2012 draft by the Leafs, the Toronto native recorded a career-high 20 goals and 36 points in 2015-16 when played in a top-6 forward role.

Carcone came to Toronto in the Josh Leivo trade with the Vancouver Canucks in December. In 62 American Hockey League games in 2018-19, the 23-year-old put up 20 goals and 44 points before adding 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 13 playoff outings.

Harpur, 24, has one goal and seven points in 103 regular season games. A fourth-round pick in 2013, the six-foot-six blue-liner played a career-high 51 times with Ottawa last season. He’s added two assists in nine playoff games.

Luchuk, 22, split time between the AHL and ECHL in 2018-19, registering four goals and nine points in 27 games with the Belleville Senators.