Five Thoughts on the Blueline

Spencer gives you his five thoughts on Ottawa’s blueline. How do the Sens reduce Thomas Chabot’s ice time? Where will Nikita Zaitsev line up? What should we expect from Jake Sanderson? And more.

Welcome and happy Friday to those of you who celebrate!

For this week’s edition of Five Thoughts, I’m going to run down a list of topics related to Ottawa’s blueline that have been on my mind the past few weeks. Covering everything from reducing Thomas Chabot’s icetime to figuring out what to do if Nikita Zaitsev is still on the roster in September.

Without further adieu, here are my Five Thoughts for Friday.

On Chabot’s Ice Time

The only thing more exhausting than regularly making the podium for highest average time on ice per season has to be consistently talking about how Thomas Chabot regularly makes the podium for highest average time on ice per season. There are two contributing factors to this. First, Chabot genuinely seems to thrive with more ice time. Second, and more importantly, the Senators have been running a relatively suspect blueline for half a decade. Chabot has long been the best defender on Ottawa’s back end with only Artem Zub as someone who’s defensive capabilities even come close to comparing.

Enter Jake Sanderson, a more experienced Erik Brännström, Zub in a contract year and potentially the emergence of one of Jacob Bernard-Docker or Lassi Thomson. The Sens may finally have an opportunity to comfortably reduce Chabot’s ice time. It’s a risk, though, because behind him you’ve got a rookie in Sanderson who probably will be good, Brännström can take another step but it’s naive to think that step will be big enough, then you’re hoping one of two rookies can also alleviate some of those minutes?

I think I have any solution that may not be overly popular.

Take Chabot off the powerplay entirely.

I know that you might be wondering why you’d take your top defenseman off the powerplay entirely but there’s something we saw when Chabot was out with a lengthy injury late last season: Ottawa’s powerplay success statistically improved with Brännström at the top of the formation. There are still some questions surrounding Brännström’s defensive game - although we’ve seen improvements - but one entirely undeniable truth is that his ability to quarterback a powerplay is NHL calibre.

Then, on the second unit, you can give the reins to a player like Sanderson or maybe Lassi Thomson if he is on the roster. Or, heck, let’s run five forwards and see what happens.

Since Erik Karlsson’s departure, Chabot has averaged 25:37 in ice time per game. Over that time, he’s contributed 163 points from the blueline, 47 of which were on the powerplay (29%). Chabot is also the only regular defender who, over the same period of time, has come even close to positive shot shares at even strength with a 49.19 CF% and a 50.25 xGF%.

I can’t think of any other way to reduce Chabot’s ice time that doesn’t negatively impact the Senators. If you simply play him less overall, the Sens sacrifice their best 5v5 rearguard for lesser talent. But if you remove him from the powerplay, the net impact is negligible at worst, potentially an improvement at best given what we saw from Brännström towards the end of last season.

On Chabot’s Partner

On the topic of our beloved, handsome alternate captain, what do you do with the top four defenders if Pierre Dorion is ultimately unsuccessful in checking that particular box off on his offseason to-do li

There are three options here, two of which are likely and one of which is my preference.

The first option is to go top heavy and pair Chabot and Zub together. Last season, when together, Chabot and Zub were electric. They complemented each other perfectly, with Zub’s defensive prowess unleashing Chabot’s puck moving capabilities to a level we’ve rarely seen from number 72. This, of course, is not ideal because once they step off the ice, you have some combination of inexperienced players and over the hill players hitting the ice.

The second option is to give Chabot a veteran anchor. I hate this option but it feels likely if nothing else happens, at least to start the season. By giving Chabot someone like Travis Hamonic or, gulp, Nikita Zaitsev as his partner, you free Zub up to be the perfect option opposite Sanderson in his rookie year. This is the strategy which drags Chabot down but lifts Sanderson up. Is that a trade off you’d be comfortable with as a head coach?

The final option is my personal preference - Jacob Bernard-Docker. I know, he’s young, he’s unproven, he has a lot to learn but my opinion on the player after having watched every single game he played for both Ottawa and Belleville last year is that there is one thing he’s very, very good at: being Steady Eddie. Bernard-Docker is probably never going to score in excess at any level - he never really has. But what he’s always done is been responsible in his own end, moved the puck well to his wingers and ensured his partner can jump into the play when opportunity strikes.

If Chabot is the new (not quite as good) Karlsson, JBD can absolutely be the new Methot.

On the Reality of Zaitsev

Incoming: beating a dead horse.

I’ll be thrilled to admit I was wrong but the longer the summer drags on, the more likely it feels that Nikita Zaitsev will be in the Ottawa Senators organization when training camp opens up. By all accounts - eye test, analytics and everything in between - this is bad. If you disagree, I’m sorry to inform you that you are objectively incorrect and your opinion on this particular matter is moot. He may “play tough minutes” but he doesn’t do it well. He may “be tough to play against in front of the net” but the problem is how much time he has to spend being tough in front of his own net because of the frequency at which he is hemmed in his own zone.

During his time with Ottawa, Zaitsev has played a minimum of 50 minutes at even strength with five different partners: Thomas Chabot, Mike Reilly, Victor Mete, Mark Borowiecki and Ron Hainsey. The only partner who was able to drag Zaitsev to a respectable CF% was, shockingly, Mike Reilly at 50.72 CF% through almost 400 minutes of ice time. Chabot and Zaitsev together was just shy with a 46.49 CF% while somehow somebody thought the Borowiecki-Zaitsev pair who rocked a 39.49 CF% had to be played together for over 200 (!) 5v5 minutes.

The big problem here for us as the fans who may have to watch this happen is that Zaitsev’s best option as a partner for players who still exist in Ottawa is Chabot.  My concerns are that the right side of Ottawa’s blueline is arguably its greatest weakness and DJ Smith has called Zaitsev “elite” like, out loud, in public, for other people to hear. To my previous thought on who will line up next to Chabot next year, you may see where I’m going with this.

Because it feels like Zaitsev will be here, we have to wrestle with the idea that he’ll play. There are other options, of course. The Sens did waive Matt Murray last season, signalling that they don’t care who you are or what your contract is, if you’re not playing well, you’re not playing well. The Sens have also, in the past, healthy scratched veteran players like Artem Anisimov and Viktor Stalberg when they got to the point where they were no longer a positive contributor to the roster.

I’m holding out hope that Dorion will find somewhere to ship Zaitsev but the clock is ticking. The further we get into August, GMs will be looking at their training camp rosters and will be less likely to shake things up.

On Erik Brännström

I think it’s safe to say that with Brännström’s development curve, Pierre Dorion might not be quite as proud today about the Mark Stone return as he was back then. That being said, in Brännström there is still a valuable player. The mixture of speed and vision makes the Swedish defender a great asset on the powerplay as well as someone that you can trust when he has the puck.

It’s when Brännström doesn’t have the puck when things can get a bit tricky to properly slot him into the lineup - particularly with the log jam of left shot defenders in Ottawa’s system. His skillset, at the end of the day, lends itself much better to a top of the lineup defender than someone logging 10-14 minutes on the third pair - that tends to be reserved for bulky, physical players.

That being said, I am of the opinion that there should be a permanent role for Brännström right out of camp on the third pair with Nick Holden as his partner. Holden has played on his off side a bit and has the trust of DJ Smith, while Brännström can also play the right side when necessary. This, of course, means that one of Hamonic or Zaitsev is not in the regular lineup. This is why this is my opinion and not a prediction. I’m still very skeptical of Smith’s evaluation of defenseman and if he has the players who are currently under contract today at camp, I’m fairly confident that Brännström will be on the outside looking in on opening night.

On Jake Sanderson

You didn’t think I’d have five thoughts on Ottawa’s blueline and not dedicate one to our shiny new top four defender, did you?

There are two things that I believe to be true when it comes to Sanderson’s introduction to the NHL this coming season. First, we should temper expectations. Second, we will be able to take those tempered expectations and throw them out the window by American Thanksgiving.

Here’s what you need to know about Sanderson’s development curve to date.

As a DY+2 defender in the NCAA, Sanderson’s primary points per game played (P1/GP) was 0.913. This basically means that Sanderson was contributing a primary point - yes, just primary points - almost every single game. As a defenseman.

For comparison’s sake, here are some of the DY+2 defenders who have accomplished something similar since 2008:

  • 2018-19: Cale Makar, 0.903 P1/GP
  • That’s it. That’s the list./

Now, of course, before you go saying that Sens fans are delusional for thinking they’ve got a defender in Sanderson who’s about to win a Calder, Norris and Conn Smythe in the next few years, that’s not what I’m saying. While this particular stat makes Sanderson look comparable to Makar, I don’t actually think Sanderson will be an elite gamebreaker like Makar. We have to understand, as fans, that Cale Makar is probably a generational talent, a la Erik Karlsson in his prime.

But, when you look at everything Sanderson has accomplished to date, and how he was described as a complete defensive defenseman with limited offensive upside only to put up a Makar-esque season last year... this is a player who’s stepping into the NHL and will quickly earn top four minutes. I think at this point that’s a fact, not an opinion. The hockey universe would have to play some sick joke on Sens fans to have Sanderson accomplish what he’s accomplished to date and follow that up by completely flopping in his rookie season.

So, what I’ll say to the pundits who think Ottawa only has two top four defenders in their lineup in Chabot and Zub, they’ve got three and you’ll realize that soon, I promise.

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