Nikita Zaitsev: From Outhouse to Penthouse
Nikita Zaitsev is currently the 3rd highest scoring defenseman in the NHL.
I’ll give you a second to let that marinate.
With 5pts through 4 games, only Jeff Petry (7pts in 5GP), and Quinn Hughes (6pts in 6GP) have tallied more points than Zaitsev at this very early mark in the season. To put that in perspective, he only had 12pts total last year with the Senators. After being the ire of Sens fans’ Twitter wrath for most of his time with the club, Nikita’s early season play has been a pleasant surprise to say the least. I would even go so far as to say that through the first four games of the season, he’s been Ottawa’s best defenseman.
Blasphemous as it may sound to suggest that anyone not named Thomas Chabot has been the most productive Sens blueliner, one need only look as far as Thursday’s game against Winnipeg for some recent examples of the Zaitsev/Chabot “hot start, cold start” dynamic. Where Zaitsev drew the primary assist on Ottawa’s lone goal and had an even +/- for the night, Chabot went scoreless, posted an ugly -3, and seemed to be fighting the puck from the opening faceoff until the final horn.
Now, am I saying that Zaitsev will continue his torrid 70pts in 56 games pace? No, this hot start is almost assuredly a flash in the pan. We can likely stop short of penciling his name in as a Norris finalist. But even when the points stop piling up, if he maintains this level of play (making smart passes, responsible in his own end defensively) then that’s something that the organization can work with moving forward.
One of the biggest knocks on Zaitsev, from a fan perspective, was that he was viewed as a “bad contract” (signed a 7 year deal with Toronto) that Ottawa was taking on as part of the Cody Ceci trade. Did fans expect a top pairing power play QB when he arrived in Ottawa? No, but it wasn’t unreasonable to hope that he could be a mainstay in the club’s top 4 defensemen. And that was something that he struggled to do, even on a depleted Senators blue line last year. $4.5M AAV per year for another 4 seasons (plus a 10 team limited no trade clause) is not something you want to be paying a 5th or 6th defenseman.
Fast forward to 2021. Not only is he currently pacing the team with 5pts (the next highest scoring Senator has 3pts), but all 5 of those have been at even strength, and 4 of the assists have been primary helpers. Which means he’s actually been driving the play offensively, and hasn’t had “cheap” helpers or spoon fed PP time. His 21:19 minutes a night is second only to Chabot in terms of average ice time. But where Chabot has limped out of the gate to start the year (1G, 1A, and 4 penalties in 4 games), Zaitsev has come out flying. In fact his +5 rating is good for 4th in the league (another top 5 category we didn’t think we’d be mentioning his name in). This 180 degree plot twist is almost Keyser Söze-esque from the player Sens fans watched struggle throughout much of the 2019-20 season.
If you were to choose the 3 bright spots for Ottawa thus far they would have to include the emergence of the Chuk Norris line (Tkachuk-Norris-Batherson), the much improved play of Nick Paul (nice to finally see a piece from that Spezza deal finally start to pan out) and then Zaitsev. Even the most cynical of Senators fans have to give credit where credit is due here.
So where does that leave us? Well for starters, barring a fall from grace that comes about as quickly as his rise to prominence, we can probably stop with the Zaitsev slander for now (it looks like poor Artem Anisimov is now in the crosshairs of armchair GM’s online). But it’s also worth repeating that while the offensive output is a welcome start to the year, you probably won’t be seeing Zaitsev’s name amongst the league leaders for much longer.
And that’s all right, the organization isn’t expecting him to shoulder the load offensively. A more realistic output for him would be in line with his 2016-17 season with the Leafs where he registered 36pts in 82 games. If we go back to the last full season (2018-19) that point total would put him in sole possession of 38th place out of 141 eligible defensemen that played at least 60 games. Not bad for a player who had become a punchline in many fans post game analysis a year ago.
While it’s hard to put too much stock into such a small sample size, the early signs have been promising for Zaitsev. He looks much more calm, and in control on the ice, and is letting the play come to him. As a result, his passes are on time, he’s not taking the same poorly calculated risks he was last season, and his on ice play has improved drastically.
Could the wheels fall off tomorrow? Sure, but for now let’s enjoy the ride for what it’s worth.
By Kyle Skinner | Sens Nation Podcast