When Artem Zub didn’t make the Ottawa Senators’ opening night line-up out of training camp, you would have been hard-pressed to find too many Sens fans that were all that disappointed. After all, Zub had signed his one year contract with the team all the way back in May of 2020 and a *lot* had happened in the intervening period of time. Besides, 25 year-olds playing their first NHL games after spending their career in the KHL don’t typically project to be game-changers. But after the Sens won their season opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs, they turned in a series of defensive performances so dire that change, any change, was desperately needed. Enter Zub.
The first thing that absolutely must be said up front is that we only have a six game sample from which we are attempting to draw conclusions. It is way too early to make any kind of definitive pronouncements about Zub’s long-term potential in the NHL. If you wanted to say to me “I’ll just wait and see a bit before I decide what’s up with Zub”, I can’t say I’d argue with you too much. Hockey is a highly chaotic sport, and he hasn’t even cracked 100 minutes in the NHL. If you want to get carried away, one way or another, know that a sample this small is ripe for making any proclamations look foolish.
All of that being said, the facts on the ground are as follows:
- In the limited minutes that Zub has played, the Sens have achieved stellar results: the team is getting over 60% of the shot attempts at 5v5 and sport a 52.65 xGF%.
- He’s collected two assists in six games
- He’s got an even rating on a team that’s been outscored by eight goals in those six games
- In last night’s game against the Oilers, he and Mike Reilly were firmly entrenched as the second pair; behind the Chabot-Zaitsev pairing, but ahead of the Gudbranson-Wolanin pairing.
At the very least, we can say from the above that Zub has achieved good results in the small sample that we have; if nothing else, he’s earned a chance to prove that he belongs as an NHL regular. The Sens’ feeble right side was always likely to give him that chance, but Zub has taken the opportunity and run with it so far.
As for the qualitative, more subjective stuff, I’ve personally been pretty impressed with Zub’s play. He’s not the world’s quickest skater, but he moves well enough so that forwards rarely blow by him. Compared to some of the plodders on the backend, Zub’s mobility has been a breath of fresh air. And if he’s not the fastest skater at his top speed, he does transition very well, allowing him to jump-start the offense when the opportunity presents itself. On several occasions I’ve been impressed with how Zub turned a defensive situation into instant offense by making a correct read, intercepting a pass, and then decisively turning the play back up ice. He’s been physical when he’s needed to, but he hasn’t chased the big hit for the sake of sending a message; he’s been strong on the puck, but he also isn’t overwhelming the opposition with his strength.
For those of you that remember Ary’s write-up of Zub back when the signing first took place, none of the above would be news. All of the scouting reports indicated that Zub had the potential to be solid fundamentally, and to move the puck efficiently. If you’re an Athletic subscriber, Hailey Salvian and Scott Wheeler also had a good scouting report at the time.
The biggest positive surprise, and maybe the heaviest contrast with the players he’s replaced in the line-up, is just how good of a passer Zub is from the backend. He rarely settles for a chip ‘n’ chase, and to take it a step further I’d say he often finds the best pass instead of simply the open pass. On several occasions, I’ve seen him hang onto the puck for an extra beat and instead of making the easy, predictable pass, he is able to find a better, more attacking one. There’s reason to hope that as he continue to adapt to the NHL game, that his reads will get even better in this regard.
Now, not to be too much of a Debbie Downer, but there was a good reason that Zub’s best pre-season comparison point was Nikita Zaitsev and the Sens would do very well to heed that cautionary tale. Zaitsev also came over the NHL as a 25 year old straight out of the KHL, and he impressed so much in his first season that Lou Lamoriello gave him a 7 (!) year contract at $4.5M a year. Though his start to this year has been encouraging, Zaitsev’s play in the two intervening seasons was not good — to put it mildly. Also, at 25, Zub is in the absolute prime of his athletic career. There may be some marginal improvements from adapting to the NHL, but he’s likely as close to a finished product as you’re going to get. If the Sens do end up discussing a long-term deal with him, I think it would behoove them to not bank on much (if any) improvement besides the aforementioned tactical tweaks.
But long-term contract talk is for another day. For now, the news when it comes to Zub is almost unequivocally good: he’s been everything the Sens could have reasonably hoped for when they signed him nine months ago. Does he have a long-term future with the team? That remains to be seen, but he’s certainly given himself a shot. In a season that’s shaping up to be one of player development, and evaluation, that’s a pretty good spot for both him and the team to be in.