At the outset of this year’s training camp, DJ Smith made a declaration that piqued my curiosity: he would be trying Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub, his two best defensemen, together as the team’s first pair. For as long as Chabot’s been the Ottawa Senators’ top gun on the blue line, the Sens have been on a quest to find him a suitable partner. The only person who had been up to the task before this year was Dylan DeMelo, and he’s been gone since the 2020 trade deadline. Others have gotten a kick at the can, most frequently Nikita Zaitsev, but nothing’s stuck. Would Zub, one of the team’s most pleasant surprises in 2021, be able to translate his stellar play to a top pairing role?
The good news is that so far, in a very small sample, the pairing has worked about as well as could be expected. The stylistic fit has been nearly impeccable: Zub’s brand of stout defending, particularly his work through the neutral zone, perfectly complements Chabot’s offensive wizardry. Each player’s weaknesses are seemingly cancelled by the other’s strengths. It’s not just a trick of the eye either, as the underlying numbers are just as impressive. Here’s how the Sens are faring when their top pair are on the ice at 5v5, courtesy of hockeyviz.com:
When Chabot and Zub are on the ice together the Sens look like world-beaters. They’ve been getting a bit of luck on the goals front, +8/-2 won’t last forever, but when you carry play to the extent that they have been you’re bound to come out ahead on goals eventually. All told, it’s been a joyous sight to behold.
If you’ve been waiting for the but, here it is: when Chabot and Zub are not on the ice together, Ottawa has been getting absolutely worked.
The offense is impotent and the defense is positively flammable. The Holden-Zaitsev pairing, one of the most used non-Chabot/Zub pairs, has been absolutely torched to the tune of a 27.63 CF%, 33.45 xGF% and +1/-3 on goals. If you’re looking for a silver lining, the Holden-Josh Brown pairing has been keeping its head above water on shots and chances, mainly by ensuring absolutely nothing happens when they’re on the ice: neither team has scored a goal at 5v5 when the Sens deploy that pair. Besides that though, there’s just one poor showing after another.
As it stands, Chabot and Zub are playing just over 40% of the 5v5 minutes by necessity. At a team level, this approach has landed the Sens with a 3-4-0 record. Should Smith keep loading up his top pairing, and maybe focus on giving them even more play at 5v5? Does he need to entertain the possibility of breaking up his dynamic duo? There’s no easy answer here. The other options besides Zub on the right side are Zaitsev and Brown; we know for certain how things go with Zaitsev (very badly) and we can guess at how they might go with Brown (likely not too much better). Meanwhile, it’s also not clear that Zub can carry a pairing on his own. On the other hand, it might not be sustainable for Ottawa to continue to struggle so badly for over half the game at 5v5.
What do you think? Can Smith keep his top pair as it is? Would it even help to break them up? Let us know in the comments below!