Let’s get one thing straight, there is still plenty of time before the season starts. Many things could change with the Ottawa Senators roster, and that’s alright. However, to start training camp, news broke that we would finally be getting a Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub pairing. This news is something fans were happy to hear as they are clearly the two best Sens defencemen. However, coach DJ Smith also followed that up by stating the next pair would be Michael Del Zotto and Nikita Zaitsev to start, adding that this pair is one he could see taking the harder matchups.
The thought of a Chabot and Zub pairing is incredibly exciting from an on-ice standpoint. However, a shutdown pair of Del Zotto and Zaitsev could be a headache. Let’s take a look at why using Michael Del Zotto could be a bold choice in a shutdown role.
DJ says he’ll have Chabot-Zub and Del Zotto-Zaitsev as the top pairs to open camp which really puts Brannstrom behind the 8 ball. DJ is saying he foresees MDZ-Zaitsev as the tough matchup pairing. That might not be pretty. https://t.co/qAAqcdfCbQ
— Tyler Ray (@DefenseMinister) September 11, 2021
Michael Del Zotto Mixed Success Defensively
The Ottawa Senators went into this offseason with several options ahead of them. Many reports and quotes reveal that they feel ready to take the next step. They even had the chance to add a few big pieces. While that didn’t happen, the insane prices teams spent on free agents gave plenty of fans relief. However, they did make some small additions to the roster, one of them being Del Zotto. This addition was a bit confusing considering they already have a busy left side, even if you don’t count Nick Holden, who both left and right sides.
However, many fans are starting to assume it signals the end of Erik Brannstrom and his time in Ottawa. Regardless, the biggest reason the Del Zotto signing is so strange is his skill set doesn’t exactly fit the Sens biggest need. They already had three skilled puck-moving defencemen that are capable of NHL minutes on the left side. Adding Del Zotto just made it closer to a fourth than adding something truly different. It’s not that Del Zotto is a bad NHL player by any means, but given his past results, one does need to ask if spending two million dollars on his skill set was the best use of that money. Could it have been spent elsewhere?
In this article, we’re mostly focusing on the defensive metrics from Del Zotto. This is because the focus is more on the idea that he could be a “shutdown” option for the Sens, and also the fact that Chabot, Brannstrom, and Victor Mete are all offensively solid players. Judging defence statistically can be tough when it comes to the NHL. Defensive metrics are so noisy and there is so much that goes into it that using just one year of data and calling it a day is not appropriate.
To try and get a look at the numbers, let’s take a look at a number of different metrics to help paint a picture of what Del Zotto has brought in the past. We’ll start with Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) metric, which is split into different groups respectively. When it comes to Even Strength Defence, Del Zotto has had a -1, -3, and -1.7 GAR over each of the last three years respectively. That is a total of -5.7, which ranks him 161st overall among 175 defencemen who have played 2000 minutes over the past three years. For overall GAR, Del Zotto ranks 97th among 175 defencemen due to his strong even-strength offence abilities. Again, he’s not a bad player but a shutdown role wouldn’t be using him effectively, at least by these metrics.
To give a visual representation of his on-ice impact, we can switch to RAPM from Evolving Hockey which shows Shots, Goals, and Expected Goals For and Against per 60 minutes of play and how it lines up compared to the league. This tool is more descriptive than predictive, meaning it shows a player’s past results, it doesn’t try to predict future results.
As you can see, over the past three seasons, Del Zotto has been above average when it comes to generating offence. Both his shot attempts and expected goals per 60 are positive, so are his actual goals per 60. However, defensively it leaves a bit to be desired, at least from someone who could be expected to take heavy defensive matchups. If we want more of a predictive model, we can use HockeyViz and their isolated impact model which helps account for prior results.
These numbers do not inspire confidence in a shutdown role for Del Zotto. In fact, he has had a positive isolated defensive impact just twice in the past nine seasons when looking at this model. “Stats aren’t everything” is a fair argument, but when there is a very common trend in the statistics, it’s at the very least something you want to look into. When something that focuses on isolating a player and his impact on the ice routinely has a player as a below-average defensive player, increasing the defensive usage doesn’t suggest a reason for increased results.
Other Questions Surrounding This Role
One comment that has been thrown around already has been along the lines of “What if Del Zotto has only played more offensively-minded because that’s all he’s ever had to do?” This could be the case. If it is, maybe it could lead to results that aren’t much different than what we see now. Additionally, it’s important to note that Del Zotto has never been asked to play a more defensive role. Why would he be asked to do so now? If the answer is “it didn’t fit his skillset” or anything along that line, you’ve answered your own question. Additionally, just because he hasn’t specifically been asked to play a shutdown role doesn’t mean he should never try defensively. It is much more likely it is just not his skillset. This is completely fine, as long as you enter with those expectations in mind.
In past seasons, he has started 51% and 56% of his shifts in the offensive zone. With the Anaheim Ducks, he had the second-lowest defensive zone starts per 60 of all defencemen. Last year with the Columbus Blue Jackets, he was third-last. So, with relatively easy usage, he still hasn’t provided strong defensive results. Is there a strong reason to expect change?
Finally, his partner needs to be a question too. Yes, Zaitsev at times can take too much heat from this fanbase. But it’s painfully obvious using the eye-test or stats that he is not a top pair guy and he shouldn’t be leading the way defensively for you. He looked his best last season when he was free to shoot the puck more and wasn’t afraid to help out offensively. Forcing him into a defence-only type of guy just seems like it could be a recipe for disaster.
What’s the Solution?
The final part to examine is if a Del Zotto and Zaitsev pair isn’t the answer, what should Ottawa do? That’s the trickiest part. Of course, everyone wants to see Chabot and Zub together. However, with the current defence core, the best option may be to keep them split up. Zub showed he can hold his own pair and perform admirably defensively last season. Why not let him try it again?
Another option is to use someone like Holden as a shutdown guy instead. He has had a history of better defensive results than either one of Del Zotto or Zaitsev. Whether you keep him paired with Del Zotto or try with someone like Mete and Holden. On paper that could be a better starting point. Finally, you could simply let the top pair take the hard matchups or don’t force one pair into hard matchups at all. Sometimes, teams can fall too deep into the trap of line-matching when instead they should simply play their best players more. This changes depending on the night, opponent, and more of course. But generally speaking, does there need to be a shutdown pair?
Overall, this training camp should be an exciting one. There is plenty of opportunity for different players their stuff. This also gives the Senators opportunities to experiment with line combinations. Del Zotto has the potential to be a very helpful piece on this Sens team. Whether it’s as an effective shutdown guy remains to be seen.