We covered the forwards yesterday, and the defensemen are up next. Compared to last year’s group, Mike Reilly, Erik Gudbranson, and Braydon Coburn were swapped out for Victor Mete, Michael Del Zotto, and Nick Holden. At first glance, this seems to be an improvement, but unless multiple players step up and perform above their contracts, the Ottawa Senators will be getting most of their wins through their offense and goaltending.
The Senators’ defensive group will be very clearly defined this season. Injuries will determine how many will play, but as of right now, there are seven on one-way deals that will see the majority of ice-time.
Del Zotto - Zaitsev
Mete - Holden
Extras: J. Brown
We’ve seen each of these pairs in action during the pre-season — the top two pairs have been hinted at prior to the start of training camp and in the case of Mete and Holden, Smith has spoken highly of both of them. I don’t expect Erik Brännström to make this team out of camp, as Smith doesn’t appear to think that he’s one of the six best defensemen in the organization. I don’t agree with that assessment, but I can also see that it goes beyond just his size. Mete is shorter and only one year older, and Smith seems to be a fan of his all-around game.
- Thomas Chabot has been an elite offensive defenseman in the NHL for parts of the last three seasons, particularly when he’s been paired up with a stable and effective partner, such as Dylan DeMelo. Artem Zub, signed as an undrafted free agent last offseason, showed that he could be a Top-4 defenseman alongside Mike Reilly in 2020-21, and there’s reason to believe he can hold up the top pair with Chabot for at least the next two seasons. If he can, that’s going to help Ottawa significantly.
- Victor Mete, claimed off of waivers from Montreal last season, didn’t make an impact on the scoresheet with the Senators, but he was able to provide the team with strong shot suppression alongside both Josh Brown and Nikita Zaitsev — both had a positive 5-on-5 expected goals share playing with Mete. Despite a small sample size with Ottawa, Mete has been underrated during most of his short career and should be able to help whatever pair he’s on affect the team’s success in a positive way.
- Of course, the second pair is also of extreme importance. The Senators had a generational talent on the back end for years and still couldn’t find sustainable playoff success largely in part due to a weak second pair. Michael Del Zotto was signed to a two-year, $2 million/year deal this past offseason, and he’s been a third-pair defenseman his whole career, one who helps his team offensively while hurting it defensively. For Nikita Zaitsev, the opposite is true, at least it was last season when he posted the best transition metrics of his career. That said, the two aren’t good enough to form an effective second pair, and that projects to be the biggest weakness of Ottawa’s defensive corps. I personally believe Mete - Zaitsev would do better as a second pair, with the remaining players rotating on the third pair.
- Despite the number of defensive prospects playing in the AHL this season, aside from Brännström who’s still in the mix, it doesn’t appear they’re ready for active NHL duty just yet. Jacob Bernard-Docker, Lassi Thomson, Maxence Guenette, and Jonathan Aspirot will require additional experience in Belleville, and if injuries force them to be recalled earlier than expected, Ottawa’s already fragile back end will risk falling apart.
The Bottom Line:
- I used the word “fragile” just now, instead of something like “disastrous“ because I do think there are a few ways to arrange the group that general manager Pierre Dorion has put together that will see Ottawa’s defense be less of a hindrance than it was last season, maybe even help. In particular, Nick Holden will be a wildcard. Acquired in exchange for Evgenii Dadonov, it appeared the 34-year-old veteran was over the hill after scoring two points in 17 games with Vegas last season, but he then went on to post an impressive 7 points in 15 playoff games. He’s also been an effective player at both ends of the ice over the last two seasons, the question will be whether or not his age and a new environment will hold him back from being the player he was in Vegas.
- There are a lot of things that have to go right for this group to be effective, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Still, it’s likely we’ll have to wait for the arrival of Jake Sanderson to really get excited about a Senators’ defense corps.