When the Ottawa Senators acquired Nikita Zaitsev from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a six-player deal (with Toronto also receiving a 2020 third-round draft pick that was later dealt to the Los Angeles Kings), Ottawa was expecting a defensively aware player who could play the right side. His offensive skills were not the key selling point.
Zaitsev had a solid rookie season in 2016-17 with the Leafs and put up four goals and 32 assists for 36 points in 82 games. His offensive play never really returned after his first season. Yet, with five points early on this season (all assists), he is providing some offensive output from a defensive group still finding its way.
With a few new faces on defense for the Senators, coach DJ Smith has been shuffling the defensive pairings regularly. Thomas Chabot is the anchor of the Ottawa defense and the future of the defensive group. He leads the team in time on ice per games played (TOI/GP) with 24:01. Zaitsev is averaging the second most at 21:14 TOI/GP. Chabot started with Erik Gudbranson in the first game of the season, but it’s Zaitsev who has been the nicest fit, or at least, benefited the most on the right side with Chabot.
Zaitsev started on the second pairing but was bumped up to the first and has started most games with Chabot since opening night. With Zaitsev’s early output it looked like Smith wanted to spread the potential offensive strength on the back end between the two top pairings.
Perhaps Smith simply didn’t like the Chabot-Zaitsev combination, but Gudbranson moved up with Chabot for some shifts, and Zaitsev has played with Mike Reilly for stretches. With the regular juggling and a new starting goaltender in Matt Murray, the Senators’ defense is struggling to find some consistency.
Defensive Zone Time
What makes Zaitsev’s point production a nice little note for the Senators is that the points are all coming at even strength. He averages just 23 seconds per game on the powerplay, which is fourth-most among the Ottawa defensive group. On the other hand, he averages the second-most minutes per game on the penalty kill for the Senators’ defense at 3:26, just behind Braydon Coburn.
Zaitsev is certainly benefitting from more even strength ice time with Chabot. This likely means he gets a bit more time in the offensive zone, or at least faceoffs in the offensive zone to start a shift. This is significant considering that the Senators have the worst goals against per games played average in the league. In other words, they’re spending a lot of time in their own zone, but Zaitsev is managing to find a way to put a few assists on the board during the few offensive stretches the Senators can muster.
Despite the potential inconsistency of the plus/minus statistic, it’s also worth noting that on a struggling team, Zaitsev is a plus-2. Only two other players currently hold a plus rating, with Nick Paul leading the way at plus-3. It’s a stat that doesn’t always tell the whole story, but it can be revealing for a player who is relied on defensively, and putting aside powerplay and penalty killing time for a second, plays the second most even strength minutes for the team. In this small sample of games, he is still making plays, getting assists, and positively impacting a team looking for bright spots to build on.
Zaitsev’s role hasn’t changed. The Senators won’t expect him to carry the team offensively. Smith has already made that clear with Zaitsev’s minimal power play time, and this is understandable. Chabot anchors the first unit, and Smith should give some of the younger defensemen, such as Wolanin, a shot on the second unit.
However, this early offensive output from Zaitsev is intriguing because he only put up 12 points last season, 14 points in 2018-19, and 13 points in 2017-18. He is easily on track to surpass all three of these point totals. In the previous three seasons (with games played including 58, 81, and 60, respectively), he primarily had the same defense-focused, shorthanded-specialist role on the right side in one of the top two pairs for the Senators and Leafs.
Perhaps this outburst will be just a nice stretch for him in the long run (zero points in the last three games, unfortunately). Or, perhaps he’s rediscovering that push in his rookie season with Toronto that helped land him a comfortable contract. On the other hand, they may simply ask Zaitsev to be a steady defensive presence on the back end. Either way, the Senators need to settle down and play a more structured and solid game in their own zone so that any offensive success won’t be wasted.
Sports and music writer, covering the Ottawa Senators for The Hockey Writers. Lecturer at King’s University College. Loves a good day at the outdoor rink.