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Nikita Zaitsev: Year in Review

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A profile of the Sens’ first-pairing RHD

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to our Year in Review feature at Silver Seven, where we re-visit the past season for key members of the Ottawa Senators. We’ve previously profiled the following players:

Drake Batherson

Erik Brännström

Connor Brown

Josh Brown

Thomas Chabot

Evgeni Dadonov

Alex Formenton

Victor Mete

Josh Norris

Nick Paul

Shane Pinto

Tim Stützle

Chris Tierney

Brady Tkachuk

Austin Watson

Colin White

Anton Forsberg

Matt Murray

Today we turn our attention to a player that I’m sure will be entirely uncontroversial: Nikita Zaitsev.

By the Numbers:

Zaitsev’s statistical profile has been the source of much consternation among Sens fans since his arrival in the nation’s capital as part of the trade that sent Cody Ceci to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Perhaps no player has inspired so much debate about the merits of the “eye test” vs. “stats” since, well....Cody Ceci. That being said, we do ourselves no favours by avoiding the subject.

Zaitsev had something of a breakout year offensively, notching four goals and thirteen assists for seventeen points in 55 games — a 25 point pace for a full 82 game season. Not since 2016-17, his first year in the league, had we seen that kind of production from the Russian defender.

When Zaitsev was on the ice last season at 5v5, the Sens posted a 46.55 CF% and a 47.64 xGF%. There were ten defensemen who played at least 100 5v5 minutes for the Sens last year, and Zaitsev ranked 8th and 6th for those two categories respectively. Zaitsev was also 7th in terms of actual goal % at 5v5 at 38.82% (33 goals for, 52 against). Of the defenders who will be with the team next year, only Josh Brown was behind Zaitsev in all three categories.

Zaitsev played almost exclusively with Chabot when the two were healthy, though there was a bit of time with Mike Reilly and Victor Mete sprinkled in there as well. As the top pairing RHD, Zaitsev also just played a lot period as he averaged 22:44 a game — a career-high. Coach DJ Smith deployed him primarily in a defensive role, though it should be noted that Mete, Zub, and Reilly all started more of their shifts in their defensive zone and spent more of their time proportionally against the opponent’s top line. Before the trade deadline, Reilly and Zub was the pairing that did the most heavy lifting in terms of defensive assignments. Certainly Zaitsev’s deployment was not extreme by any measure.

Here’s how Micah McCurdy’s hockeyviz model views Zaitsev as of this writing:

hockeyviz.com

Zaitsev profiles as a large negative offensively, helpful defensively, and just about average on the PK.

Story of the Season:

It is very difficult to make a positive case for Zaitsev based on his statistical profile: the Sens are consistently on the wrong side of things whenever he’s on the ice, be it by volume of shots, quality of chances, or the actual goals scored by each team. Like Austin Watson, however, Zaitsev’s value to the team is tied up in more than just stats. It may sound like damning with faint praise but Zaitsev is reliable; he’s barely missed any time since coming into the NHL, and he appeared in 55 of the 56 games this past season. Considering the style of game he plays, and the way he is willing to lay his body on the line to block shots, that’s saying something.

At the start of the season, Smith briefly experimented with playing Erik Gudbranson alongside Chabot but that didn’t last more than a couple of games before Zaitsev was back on the top pair. When Chabot was injured towards the end of the year, it was Zaitsev who became the defacto #1 defenseman and he was counted on by Smith to lead a very young, inexperienced defense group. Here’s how Smith described Zaitsev after the Sens pulled out a victory over the Jets — the very game where Chabot was injured early on:

It’s great to see him get rewarded a lot. I don’t think enough people talk about how hard he is to play against and how little room you have and how hard it is to get to the net. He doesn’t provide a ton of offence because he spends the entire game trying to shut you down. I’d say most teams don’t like playing against him.

In a lot of ways, 2020-21 was a typical Zaitsev season: he played his game, he blocked some shots, and he was consistently available. Lots of things changed for Ottawa over the course of the year but Zaitsev remained very much the same.

Future Outlook:

Zaitsev will be 30 before this calendar year is out, and he has three years (including this one) left on a deal that pays him $4.5M annually. While the Sens are practically over-stocked with NHL-calibre defenders on the left side, there remains a dearth of options on the right side. Zub had a promising first year in the league, but it would surprise me if he usurped Zaitsev’s place beside Chabot. Jacob Bernard-Docker showed flashes in his first tour of duty but nothing to indicate he was ready for top line minutes. Josh Brown is a depth option at best. Lassi Thomson is likely still a couple of years away. For 2021-22, Zaitsev seems poised to play important minutes for the Sens.

The question of what to do with Zaitsev becomes trickier after this season, as likely even his most ardent defenders would agree that he is best suited on the second, or maybe even third pair. At that point, his price tag might force the Sens to move on if he isn’t going to be playing top line minutes — and especially so if his deal is preventing them from retaining some other more important parts of the core. When the Sens traded for Zaitsev, they were a different team than they are trying to be. It remains to be seen whether he will he find a place amongst the youngsters as the team attempts to transition out of the rebuild into play-off contenders and beyond.