It’s not the most exciting situation to be brought in for, but it just might be the best opportunity: help a group in the midst of a long losing stretch to improve their defensive play and find some structure and confidence in their own zone. Artem Zub made his NHL debut with the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 31 with some of the weight of this tall task on him. On the one hand, he couldn’t really make things any worse for the Senators and expectations might be low. Just clear rebounds, move the puck out efficiently, and help keep the opponent’s high percentage chances to a minimum. On the other hand, with a frustrated team and fanbase, expectations for every player coming into the lineup on any given night might be pushed beyond reasonable.
A New Face
The 6-foot-2, nearly 200-pound, 25-year-old Russian came into the lineup after Thomas Chabot slid hard into a post against the Vancouver Canucks and needed a couple of days to rest. The days off were more precautionary in nature and he returned after missing only one game. To Chabot’s credit, he stepped back into his role immediately instead of easing back in or missing more games which he could have deservedly done. Leading the team in ice time during this difficult road trip is surely physically and mentally taxing. Taking more time away might have been the easier or healthier choice for Chabot, but he wants to be in the lineup. This is a positive note for the team and their leadership group.
Zub wasn’t expected to slot in on the top pair in place of Chabot for the one game. He started on the third pair, but has moved up to the second pair. This bump is admittedly more out of a necessity and realization or acceptance on the part of the coaching staff that some of the veteran players brought in during the offseason are struggling more than expected (reaching a breaking point with the waiving of Braydon Coburn).
Zub played well enough (in a horn-buster 8-5 loss to the Edmonton Oilers) to earn a chance to stay in the lineup when Chabot returned. Zub only played 13:32 (lowest of the defensive group) on Jan. 31 but managed to get out of the night with an even plus/minus rating in a game with 13 goals. Heading into Zub’s second career NHL game, Coburn and Erik Gudbranson became the third pair while Zub lined up on the right side with Mike Reilly on the second pair.
Zub hasn’t logged any power-play or penalty-kill time yet. No power-play time is understandable at this point, but jumping up to the second pair might pressure head coach DJ Smith to give him a look on the penalty kill. With Coburn out of the lineup for the time being, Smith will need to fill his 3:47 (average) of shorthanded time on ice per games played (SH TOI/GP). Reilly and Chabot log less than a minute of SH TOI/GP and Gudbranson has carried the most SH TOI/GP after Coburn. The Senators’ penalty kill is fifth worst in the league at this time, so a tweak in ice time allocation should be coming. Granted, their penalty kill is not expected to be in the top half of the league, but giving Zub some of the shorthanded minutes can help with his development and spread some of the shorthanded responsibility more evenly.
At even strength, Zub has faired quite well. Two assists in two games looks just fine right now. His first career NHL point came as he was the last man back off of a scattered breakout from the Oilers. He covered the left side for his defensive partner and scooped up the loose puck. Zub shifted the play to right side and moved the puck up quickly to Connor Brown, who handed it off to Brady Tkachuk, who riffled it into the net. The Oilers were already up by four at this point in the first period of Zub’s debut, but his awareness on the coverage and quick crisp pass were pleasant sights to see.
His second point was quite similar (seen below). Swinging over to the left side to cover and challenge the one Oiler forechecker, Zub used his reach to swing the puck away from the forecheck and onto Derek Stepan’s stick who moved it up to Tim Stützle, who cashed in for his third career goal. The Oilers were already up again and in control of the game.
Despite the seeming inconsequential nature of the goals, Zub’s plays are worth highlighting because they start with defensive-minded moves that lead to offensive chances. He isn’t necessarily known for his offensive play, but that’s not what the Senators really need from him. If he continues to put up points, that’s great, but it’s his defensive awareness and defense-first approach that will really help the Senators rebuild and strengthen their back end, which has given up the most goals against at five-on-five in the league. He got caught in between the crease and the open man on the Oilers’ eighth goal on Jan. 31, and he won’t catapult the team into the top 10 in defensive categories, but the focused defensive play displayed in his first two starts is what they need to continue to see.
The Youth Movement
With Erik Brännström slotting into the lineup on the third pair, we are starting to see the younger group get some opportunities. No doubt, this young group is being asked to develop a bit quicker with pressure mounting to show some glimpse of hope during this 2020-21 season. They’re not expected to put up wins but showing some potential and the ability to learn and adapt at the NHL level are perhaps the most important highlights we won’t see in the game recaps.
With a positive debut during a stretch of games most Senators fans won’t want to remember, Zub’s first couple of NHL games might end up representing one of the key moments of the rebuild where management, the coaching staff, and the players really committed to their young group.