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Artem Zub: Year In Review

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Zub.

Ottawa Senators v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

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

Nikita Zaitsev

Here it is. The piece I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for. Artem Zub. Year in review. 2020-21.

By the Numbers

Zub is one of those rare, very powerful players who both passes the eye test and has great underlying numbers. He played 47 games with the Sens last season, scoring three goals and eleven assists. His underlying offensive numbers were perfectly acceptable for a defenseman, and his defensive numbers were good for an Ottawa Senators defenseman.

One thing I noticed while playing around with Natural Stat Trick is that he seems to do especially well in the area of high danger scoring chances, as well as high danger goals. This suggests that he picks his moments, so even if he isn’t always getting shots on goal, the shots he does get are very high quality. I’d say that’s a good thing to have in a defensive defenseman. It certainly aligns with what the eye test has been telling us.

If we look at how he ranks compared to other Sens defensemen, the difference isn’t that dramatic, but it is there. This chart has him slightly better at preventing goals from being scored than most of the other defensemen who played a lot of minutes for the team. Mete and Josh Brown both do better than Zub in this category, but they did both get less icetime.

Hockeyviz.com

And in this chart, which compares each player’s performance with and without Zub on the ice, you can see that most players tend to give up fewer goals with him around, even if they also generally create less offense.

Hockeyviz.com

Story of the Season

Where do I even start?

Zub was signed to a one-year contract during the 2020 offseason - a slightly strange signing as the defenseman had spent his entire career in Russia up until that point. Zub had won a gold medal with Russia in the 2018 Olympics and, from what I understand, was already quite well-known in the KHL. However, he wasn’t really on the radar of many people in North America. It’s also difficult to get advanced stats from the KHL, so Sens fans really didn’t know much about the guy. He ranked 24th in our Top 25 Under 25 ranking for 2020, and Shaan described him as a “wildcard.”

Oh, and did I mention that he didn’t speak a word of English?

The mystery surrounding this guy only made him more interesting. Was he some obscure European prospect whose game would never translate to the NHL? A fan-favourite that coaches just don’t like? The Sens’ best right-handed defenseman? Did anyone even know what he looked like? Remember that the Sens don’t usually go for Russian players, so this signing was extra weird. Also, Zub had apparently been talking to multiple teams, but really wanted to be a Senator. Who does that? We were intrigued.

A certain segment of the fanbase soon embraced the mystery surrounding the guy. The fact that he had a funny sounding name made him even more likable, and soon we were making puns about his name, eagerly anticipating our first glimpse of the defenseman.

Unfortunately, Zub didn’t get to play in the Sens’ first few games of the season. Those were also the Sens’ worst games of the season. Coincidence? I mean… come on.

It’s safe to say that his NHL debut was much-anticipated, partly because there was no way he could possibly be worse than the current defense, and partly because a lot of us were curious about him. Who is this mysterious Zub? And is he any good?

Spoiler alert: he is.

A sad truth about hockey fandom is that the most memeable players aren’t always the best ones. How many times has this fanbase gotten behind a fun and likable player who just wasn’t good enough to stick around long term? It sucks, but it’s just how life works. So when Zub finally made the lineup, a lot of us were prepared for disappointment. Maybe he would just be average.

But oh, he was so much better than average.

I don’t need to tell you what happened on February 15th, 2021. Epic poems will be written about this event one day. Songs will be sung about it for years to come. It’s only a matter of time before we see statues commemorating the event around Ottawa. There will be a giant tapestry about it at the CTC. This might have been the greatest game of all time. The greatest goal of all time. It was the stuff of legend.

I don’t need to tell you what happened, but I’m going to anyway. Picture this: the Sens are down 5-1 to their biggest rival at the beginning of the third period, and they’re on the penalty kill. The penalty expires, and their guy jumps out of the box - a defensive defenseman who has a cult following in a very niche Twitter community but is pretty much unknown outside of it. He goes on a breakaway, and scores an absolutely beautiful goal - his first in the NHL. It sparks the biggest comeback in team history.

Like I said, the stuff of legend.

The legend of Zub only grew as the season wore on. He was even better than we had hoped. His defensive game continued to be solid, and he continued to show flashes of offensive talent. Pretty soon, the idea of making him sit out a game was completely unthinkable. He was arguably the Sens’ best right handed defenseman.

On the ice, he continued to be good, and off the ice, fans continued to be fascinated by the young defenseman.

You know my one regret about this season? That we never got to see Zub in a shootout. There were several opportunities for it, too.

The man also continued to be a mystery off the ice. So much so that Ian Mendes wrote a whole piece for The Athletic answering the burning questions we all had about him, such as: how is he learning English? What is his family like? And what’s the story behind his “medal of friendship?” When he created his first public social media account - an Instagram account - it was such a big event that I, personally, almost completely forgot about the playoff hockey game that was going on at the time, which just so happened to be game 7 between the Habs and Leafs.

In the end, Zub was rewarded for his excellent play, as he was the first big signing of the Sens’ offseason. I’m still a little suspicious of the timing of that announcement, but I won’t complain about a two year deal for a guy who is rapidly becoming a fan favourite.

Future Outlook

Part of the reason why Zub has been such a great find for the Sens is because the team is kind of desperate for right-handed defensemen. There’s Zaitsev, but he’s not really first pairing material, and there’s JBD, but he’s quite young and the Sens might want to ease him into the NHL. It’s pretty amazing that Zub has turned out so well.

Will he start next season on the first pair? I’d be surprised if the team went with him over Zaitsev, but I do think they should do it. He’ll certainly be a mainstay in the top 4, at least until JBD is ready for those types of minutes.

We can’t say for sure what the more distant future will hold for Artem Zub. He’s only played one very short season in the NHL, after all, even if he is 25. Still, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that he’s going to be an important part of the team moving forward. I think Marc Methot is a good comparable.

Also, he can’t ever leave. I would cry so much.