Introducing Artyom Zub: His career, setting expectations, and the fit with Ottawa

Chances are you’ve heard Zub’s name mentioned far too many times over the last two months. Time to learn more about the player himself.

I don’t remember the last time the Ottawa Senators signed a free agent that was met with as much of a reaction as Artyom Zub. TSN’s Darren Dreger reported Ottawa’s interest on January 29th after GM Pierre Dorion and AGM Peter MacTavish went overseas in the third week of January to scout to prospects, but made time to go to Russia to watch Zub suit up for the KHL’s crown jewel, SKA St. Petersburg. Since then, Dreger filed four reports (Mar. 25, Mar. 27, Apr. 7, Apr. 30) before the 24-year-old right-shot defenceman was officially signed to a one-year, entry-level contract on May 1.

Part of the reaction is due to the times we find ourselves in. With hockey postponed indefinitely since the start of March, there’s been a lull that we notice all too well as we reminisce about the days where getting sports-related information was like a constant static buzz. However, part of it is because of on-ice reasons, I’m assuming. Fans here grew to love Dylan DeMelo — the player whose spot Zub is presumably replacing next season — and are worried about Zub’s comparisons to Nikita Zaitsev, who had a poor first year in Ottawa. There’s also the general uncertainty about what to expect from an undrafted defenceman who is now beginning his North American career.

There are certainly intriguing qualities to Zub, from his career-year in 2019-20 and his strong international play with Russia, to the way his age fits in the Sens’ current team development cycle.

While we’ve all been overanalyzing Zub more than we did, say, the team’s “big” European free agent defence signing last offseason, Djurgårdens’ Olle Alsing, the circumstances now are a little bit different. In this piece, I’ll aim to guide you through Zub’s career-to-date, set (what I feel are) appropriate expectations for the player, and discuss the fit between team and player for next season.

From Khabarovsk to St. Petersburg to Pyeongchang

Zub started his professional career with Amurskie Tigry Khabarovsk in the southeast of Russia, where you’re bordering China, Japan, and Korea instead of Belarus, Ukraine, and Finland. It’s a club with only one notable name that I can think of to come out of their junior ranks, Russian international star Sergei Plotnikov, so Zub has always had an uphill battle to make his NHL debut from the very beginning. In his draft year, 2012-13, he had four points in 59 games in the MHL, and two goals in seven games in his first major international tournament for Russia — the U18s.

He made his KHL debut two seasons later (2014-15), and was eventually traded to SKA for monetary compensation in 2016-17. His increased role with the league’s premier club also meant regularly getting meaningful playoff experience — including an 18-game run en route to his first Gagarin Cup — and more international play, with his first bronze medal in international play at the 2017 IIHF World Championships.

Since his transfer to St. Petersburg, he’s shown steady improvements in point production — due in part to increased talent around him, along with growing confidence with the puck — while playing a mix of regular season, playoffs, and international tournaments. Zub won gold with the Olympic Athletes from Russia in 2018 as the second-youngest defenceman on the team (6GP: 4P), and finally broke out in a big way this past season with 13 goals and nine assists in 57 games blowing his previous highs (2G, 7A, 9P) out of the water.

Setting Expectations

What’s Zub’s game like after four seasons with SKA and six in the KHL?

Since the beginning, almost every report I’ve seen has played down Zub’s offensive breakout this year while noting that he’s mainly going to be relied on for his defensive capabilities in the NHL.

  • Darren Dreger noted that Zub has “the potential to be a top-four shutdown defenceman in the NHL”
  • Pierre McGuire (through Bruce Garrioch) emphasized his size and range, noting that “[Zub] plays a simple, smart defensive game, a stabilizing player in his own zone. He’s very solid, useful and mature player. He should be able to crack the top four and it shouldn’t be much of an adjustment for him to play on the small ice surfaces.”
  • Craig Button (also through Bruce Garrioch) liked Zub’s skating ability and long history of defensive aptitude, adding: “He moves the puck efficiently and defends with a good understanding. He’s not a physical force but is certainly no pushover and he competes well; not a dynamic player but one who you know what you’re going to get”
  • Pierre Dorion (official release): “Artem is a smart defensive defenceman who moves the puck well and who utilizes his strength and mobility to make plays. His extensive international resume will help him transition to a North American style of play but his key attribute is his sound ability to defend.”/

The most detailed breakdown of Zub’s game comes from The Athletic’s Hailey Salvian and Scott Wheeler ($). Out of respect for their model, I won’t clip too much of their piece (which has great video if you have a subscription!), but will emphasize their conclusion:

Ultimately, Zub has also earned the trust of his coaches defensively at a relatively young age. He regularly appears on both special teams and was the go-to defender for late-game situations with the lead in all of my viewings. [...] At the end of the day, you can expect an aggressive, mobile two-way defender who isn’t afraid to take a chance on a puck, step up off the rush defensively, or join it offensively. But you can also expect a heads-up, careful outlet passer. And though he’s a volume shooter, his offensive game is a little one-dimensional, all of his goals this season were at even strength, and he’s not going to be a power play option.

While I know the offence isn’t likely going to translate in a similar way to the NHL, I do really like some of the offensive instincts Zub has, and I hope it isn’t “coached” out of him in Ottawa for the purposes of keeping him to his “role”. Take a look at the clip below from September 2016 — Zub’s Khabarovsk’s days — and check out his instinct to recognize he has coverage behind him and follow the play down low:

And this similar play from just a few months ago:

The aggressiveness Salvian and Wheeler describe can also be seen “defensively”, too. I have the word in quotes because some may still think of defence as something that only happens in the defensive zone as opposed to any action taken when the player doesn’t have the puck, but if you bear with me, you can watch his aggressive pinch at the opponent’s blue line directly contributing to a break up, puck retrieval, and then a goal:

While we can all imagine plays like that against tougher competition going poorly for Zub and making us scratch our heads at the “smart, defensive game” reports mentioned earlier, his capacity for this is also what makes him enticing if D.J. Smith’s Senators continue to try to play an up-tempo style of play.

Since Erik Karlsson was drafted, the Senators have always taken the approach of having “balanced” pairs on defence — with an offensive-minded player on one side paired with a defensive-minded player on the other. Dylan DeMelo was that for Thomas Chabot, while Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev weren’t, but while I can understand that line of thinking for having complementary skillsets, it falls into the trap of thinking that playing with the puck doesn’t equate to defence. While I’m not holding my breath to see if lessons were learned in terms of evaluating defenders, Zub presents a new opportunity into this decade-long challenge for the Senators front office.

Comparisons to Zaitsev, Belov, and beyond

Speaking of inadequate defensive play, now is a good time to address Zub’s direct comparison to current Sens defender, fellow countryman, and a right-shot, undrafted defender who played seven years in the KHL before coming over to North America at age 24, Nikita Zaitsev.

To start, one quick look at their EliteProspects pages [Zub, Zaitsev] will indicate a couple of things:

  1. Zaitsev played in all major international tournaments that he was allowed to participate in, including the U18s, U20s, and World Championships. Zub did not suit up for Russia at the U20s.
  2. Zaitsev had a strong offensive campaign with his home club (Sibir Novosibirisk) before transitioning to one of the league’s elite clubs in CSKA Moskva. He then followed up that play with two seasons of >0.50 points-per-game, back-to-back first all-star team awards, and international recognition at the IIHF World Championships. Zub’s career high is 0.39 points-per-game.

While there was talk of Zaitsev regaining his point-producing form from his first NHL season (82GP: 36P) in an enhanced role with Ottawa, we saw the same player the Leafs did in his last two seasons, with barely any flashes of offence at all. In fact, I would argue that Zaitsev is the Sens player who struggled with the puck the most this season.

Hence, I can empathize with people’s fears when the first player Zub is compared to is Zaitsev, especially when you consider that Zaitsev was the better player in all facets before making the jump to the NHL. The clips above do showcase a player that has sense in the offensive zone, though, and all I can ask is for the Senators to not jump into plugging Zub into a “role” and instead, try to utilize all of his strengths, not just his ability in the defensive zone, when asking him to play in 2020-21.

In order to try and find some other comparisons for Zub, I searched through the careers of all Russian-born defencemen to play in the NHL who were a) undrafted, and b) played a majority of their career in the KHL before signing with a North American team. This excludes a majority of this list, as most Russians were drafted or have been making the journey to North America earlier (to play in the CHL or USHL) to increase their chances of an NHL career. However, I did find seven non-Zaitsev players who fit the criteria — all within the last decade.

Some of this is to be expected. On a contractual basis, most of these players are signed to one-year entry-level contracts like Zub is, or signed to a one-year “try me” UFA deal to see if there’s a fit. It’s incredibly hard for the player in these positions, too, as the NHL coming up as an option later in life, as opposed to planning for it like the younger CHLers/USHLers do, means that you aren’t as prepared for the lifestyle shift or the change in language. With only 50 active Russian NHLers last year, chances are you’re the only one in your locker room who can speak the same language as you.

What does this mean for Zub?

With the aforementioned Zaitsev and fellow Arytom (Anisimov) in the locker room, the Sens are surprisingly well-positioned to receive Zub and maximize his chances of a smooth transition.

While there were reports that upwards of 20 teams were interested in Zub, including the Edmonton Oilers, Detroit Red Wings, and Carolina Hurricanes — one of which has a front office I trust more than others — what ultimately landed Zub was the opportunity, with Garrioch noting that Zub fits with D.J. Smith’s goal of trying to get his club to be more competitive in its own end.

Only Zaitsev, Thomas Chabot, Christian Wolanin, and Mike Reilly are on guaranteed one-way contracts next season, and while Erik Brännström, Christian Jaros, Max Lajoie, Lassi Thomson, and Olle Alsing are among the prospects pushing for spots, the Sens have likely told Zub that they see him sticking with the team all year — with his pro experience and penalty killing acumen adding something the team is missing sans DeMelo and likely hopefully, Ron Hainsey. His aggressiveness actually reminds me of how the Sens liked pending UFA and likely returnee, Mark Borowiecki, to play in the neutral zone, and slotting him on the third-pair — instead of as Chabot’s partner given the poor track record of KHL defenders jumping straight into things — might be a more realistic spot for Zub to land.

Ultimately, Zub is also here to play minutes in lieu of a Cody Goloubef, Luke Schenn, Yannick Weber-type of player the Sens could’ve signed in free agency, and will provide ample competition for Jaros — the only right-shot defence prospect who’s “ready” — in training camp while Thomson is in Belleville and Bernard-Docker is at North Dakota.

From what you’ve read today, it’s more likely than not that Zub’s going to only be here for one season, a player for the team to “try” on for size that could be a better fit for where this team is at development-wise. That being said, there are intriguing offensive and defensive components to his game — aggressive plays in the former, with steady, reliable play in the latter — that will serve the Sens well in terms of minutes this season.

What do you think about Zub? Let us know that, and your preferred nickname for the newest Sens defenceman, in the comments section!

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