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The Ottawa Senators Must Trade Nikita Zaitsev if Usage Doesn’t Decline Significantly

It is no secret that many NHL coaches have blind spots when it comes to certain players. Ottawa Senators fans will remember that Guy Boucher (in)famously had favourites such as Tom Pyatt. . Enter DJ Smith and Nikita Zaitsev. The defenseman has been with the Senators since his acquisition via trade in 2019. In the time since the trade, Zaitsev has succeeded in being a warm body that plays heavy minutes for the team. However, the on-ice impact has been underwhelming. This season has been more of the same, yet the coach still believes in Zaitsev’s defensive prowess despite proof that he has other, superior, options. General managers must recognize these blind spots and take a coach’s favourite toys away when necessary. If DJ Smith continues to deploy the veteran defenceman, whom he has described as “elite”, in meaningful minutes, then the Senators’ front office has even more reason to trade Nikita Zaitsev.

Why the Senators Should Look to Trade Nikita Zaitsev

Zaitsev’s Harmful Impact

Of course, the casual fan need only delve into some basic analytics to recognize that Zaitsev is not a player that under any circumstance should be described as “elite”, and the coach’s belief in the player’s defensive prowess has a significant negative impact on the team’s performance. None more so than on the performance of Thomas Chabot. This season, in 211 minutes together at 5 on 5, the Chabot-Zaitsev pair have posted a Corsi For percentage of 42.6 and Expected Goals-For percentage of 41.71. Hardly the performance one would expect out of their team’s number one defensive pair. 

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If Not Zaitsev, Then Who?

Luckily for DJ Smith, he has other options which, when forced by injuries, he has utilized already with superior results. Utilizing statistics from NaturalStatTrick, the following table compares Chabot’s performance with Zaitsev against his performance with  right-shot defencemen Artem Zub, Lassi Thomson, and Jacob Bernard-Docker


Chabot With 5v5 TOI CF% CA/60 xGF% xGA/60 Off. Zone Start%
Zaitsev 211:58 42.60 71.33 41.71 2.95 54.41
Zub 319:55 47.72 60.47 47.95 2.52 64.10
Thomson 127:52 56.08 52.55 47.62 2.75 60.53
Bernard-Docker 90:25 54.65 51.76 52.04 2.48 55.56

The table could have included more columns but that would have been beating a dead horse. Among the four partners listed, Chabot’s time with Zaitsev is the worst in terms of on-ice impact by any measure. Offensive zone starts, despite its arguably low impact on results, were included for added context but as the table shows, the Chabot-Zaitsev pair has similar zone starts to Chabot with Bernard-Docker, and Chabot’s impact with the rookie defenceman is strikingly improved. 

CA/60 and xGA/60 were included to demonstrate that Nikita Zaitsev does not provide any kind of defensive improvement, as the pair is the worst in terms of shots and scoring chances against. There is simply no valid reason for this pair to continue to exist. No valid reason for Chabot to continue to play with such an anchor while superior partners are available. But coaches have their favourites and given that Zaitsev has been a Senator for multiple seasons and the coach still describes him as elite, it is unlikely that DJ Smith will recognize the truth any time soon. 

What Can Be Done?

It will be up to general manager Pierre Dorion to take the toy away from Smith. Zaitsev’s contract does provide a bit of an obstacle, however. The player still has two years remaining on that seven-year deal at 4.5 million dollars. Dorion was willing to bury Michael Del Zotto and his 2 million dollar salary in the minors, but it’s unlikely that he, and Sens owner Eugene Melnyk, will be willing to bury Zaitsev’s salary.

The owner’s fiscal conservatism may prove to be a benefit, however, as Zaitsev is owed a 2 million dollar signing bonus this summer and the next, which may motivate the owner to push Dorion to move the contract before July. The manager’s options, in that case, will be to either buy out the remaining years on the contract or find a trade. 

Due to the previously mentioned salary bonuses owed to Zaitsev, the buy-out option does not look optimal. The Senators would still pay Zaitsev his bonuses plus 833,000 dollars the next two seasons, then just 833,000 dollars for another two years. The extra budget space in this scenario would not be significant due to the expense that would have to be paid to whichever player replaces him. This should be considered the worst-case scenario (other than actually keeping the player).

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It’s Best the Sens Trade Nikita Zaitsev

The trade route with no salary retained is the absolute best-case. Ideally, Pierre Dorion finds a patsy willing to take Zaitsev’s full contract without any added compensation, but that probably will not happen. Salary retention opens more options, but that should be avoided. Most likely, the Sens will have to pay a draft pick to a team such as the Arizona Coyotes, which has already signalled a willingness to take on salary in exchange for future assets.

If they could make this happen at the trade deadline, the Senators would have a great opportunity to give meaningful minutes to all their young defencemen, including their prized prospect, Jake Sanderson, who is expected to join the team late in the season. 

Looking Ahead

The Senators have an opportunity to rid themselves of the final obstacle to a competent, dare we even say good, group of defensemen, all capable of contributing to driving play. Despite their position in the standings, the Senators are running out of holes in the lineup that require filling.

Those holes are only in the forward group however, the defence is ready for next season. While DJ Smith has mostly done a good job in Ottawa, there are instances in which his optimal personnel decisions have only been a result of having no other options. One such example was moving Tim Stützle to centre. If the coach is not willing to make the optimal decision, the manager has to get rid of the last of his toys. This could mean the best option for the Sens, which would be to trade Nikita Zaitsev.

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