The Nikita Zaitsev Dilemma: Sympathy vs Empathy

(Note that this article was written, just prior to Zaitsev being placed on waivers on Wednesday)

Nikita Zaitsev in action against the New York Islanders on Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in N.Y. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

I recall back when Ron Wilson was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as head coach in March of

2012. Wilson was mercilessly taunted by the fans at the Air Canada Centre in the previous

game with chants calling for his dismissal.


Here were Brian Burke’s comments during the announcement:


“After the last home game, it was clear to me that it would be cruel and unusual punishment to

let Ron coach another game in the Air Canada Centre. I wasn’t gonna put him through that.”

That stuck with me because, while I generally consider Brian Burke to be an arrogant man who

needs to choose his words more carefully, in that moment he showed genuine empathy for

Wilson. Firing him was the most humane thing he could do at that time.


Fast forward to November 3, 2022, and I attended the Ottawa Senators game against the Vegas

Golden Knights. The starting lineup is about to be announced, and I can see Nikita Zaitsev

skating around amongst the starting five skaters.


I had two emotions go through me even prior to hearing his name announced on the public

address system.


My first was “What the hell is DJ thinking putting Zaitsev out to start against the hottest team in

the league?” Like most Sens fans, I cringe at the thought of what could possibly go wrong and

wonder aloud how he draws into the lineup ahead of anyone regardless of whether Artem Zub

is injured or not.


My second was “Why is DJ subjecting this guy to moans and groans that were surely to follow

when the Canadian Tire crowd heard his name?” That’s what it has come to for me with this

player. I can’t bring myself to badger him. There’s nothing I can contribute to the pile of

derogatory comments that aren't already in there. Whenever coaches yelled at me in my

competitive hockey days, my father always reminded me that if the coach didn’t think I could

do it, he wouldn’t waste his breath. I guess that’s my dad’s idea of finding the bright side of

getting berated in front of your peers.


Of course, then Jacob Bernard-Docker was recalled for the Philadelphia game two nights later

where he sat in the press box whilst Zaitsev played in his place. Belleville was playing the

Marlies that night, and lost, and I recalled what DJ Smith said in his presser about JBD and his

plans for development. The gist of his comments was that they didn’t want to bring him up and

send him back down. They wanted to make sure that when he got into the lineup that he

stayed there.


Of course, he was returned to Belleville the next day, on paper at least, having missed an

important development game against the Marlies only to be recalled again for the game against

the Vancouver Canucks. Thankfully, he drew into the lineup on the right side playing very

steadily alongside Thomas Chabot. Of course, Nick Holden, not Zaitsev, was the lineup casualty

to make room for JBD.


No one may ever understand what is driving the lineup decisions that DJ Smith makes night

after night. Part of me admires how Smith stands by Zaitsev. The coach needs to have the

players’ back when no one else does. It’s safe to say, outside of the dressing room, no one else

has Nikita Zaitsev’s back.


That said, there is having someone’s back and simply refusing to accept the reality that is being

displayed night after night.


I will acknowledge that when DJ Smith said that they weren’t losing because of Zaitsev, he was

absolutely right. The Senators are not losing because of him. It would be grossly unfair to pin

this five-game slide on Zaitsev. It has a lot more to do with who isn’t there, Zub and Norris,

than who is in the lineup.


That said, though Zaitsev isn’t responsible for the slide, on a nightly basis, he is taking a spot

away from someone who would be more capable of helping them get out of it.


The Senators said that the best players were going to play. I would respectfully say that isn’t

happening. I still see JBD and Lassi Thomson as better options than Zaitsev, Holden and

possibly Brannstrom as well. Even Travis Hamonic is, in my opinion, a five at best and playing in

the wrong matchups expose him.


All the fuss over going out and getting a top four defenseman like Jake Chychrun, who has yet

to play this year, and they have a four and five playing in their organization right now in

Belleville who are better than what they are dressing on a nightly basis.


Rather than heaping insults onto Zaitsev, it’s time to ask those difficult questions of Pierre

Dorion and DJ Smith. Questions like:


a) Have you considered waving Zaitsev and putting him in Belleville like you did with

Michael Del Zotto last year?

b) Do you still think you can move Zaitsev to another team given the level of his

performance right now?

c) Do you believe that you are dressing the best players on a nightly basis in this

organization or is contract status playing a role in dictating who is and isn’t in Ottawa?

d) When Artem Zub returns to the lineup, do you intend to return Jacob Bernard-

Docker to Belleville if his play dictates that he should be in Ottawa?

e) What are your plans for Lassi Thomson this season?


It may seem cruel to want to send Zaitsev to Belleville. However, I think it would be the most

humane thing that the Senators could do for him. The Twitter bashing and boos would literally

grind to a halt. The questions at the pre-game and post-game pressers would be about

anything but that and surely Smith is tired of jumping in front of Zaitsev to eat a bullet like a

secret service agent might for the Prime Minister. He might regain some confidence and he

would still be getting paid handsomely to play the game of hockey.


While in Belleville, Del Zotto played at an all-star level and eventually ended up back in Ottawa towards the end of the season before being bought out of his final year. During that time, Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson got valuable development at the NHL level and proved they could play.


Would it be a blow to his ego?


That’s where I draw the line between sympathy and empathy. I don’t feel sorry for anyone

getting paid handsomely to do their dream job just because they fall on hard times. Welcome

to the club. We can all get some matching uniforms. The sympathy I feel is for fans having to

watch what they know is not the best the team can dress on a nightly basis and possibly the

teammates who will never throw him under the bus but can surely see what is happening.


I can, however, empathize with someone who is on the constant receiving end of negative

commentary and their annual income doesn’t preclude them from that. I more than

understand the fans and their frustrations. I am one of them. What I don’t understand is the

stubborn desire from Dorion and Smith to keep running an underperforming and possibly

underqualified player in the lineup on a nightly basis when better options exist.


This is the time for the organization to show some empathy for a player who must be at the

lowest of low points. If the organization hadn’t been willing to pay one way money to a player

in the AHL last year in Del Zotto, I would think that could be the driving force. It was done last

year. Zaitsev got his bonus on July 1st. Therefore, he has received more than half his salary

already.


If they are worried that Zaitsev’s trade value will diminish, I can’t imagine that it could go lower

than it already is and the price tag to eat his salary must be going up by the game at his current

level of play.


It’s time to abandon the idea of moving Zaitsev to another organization and simply move him to another part of the Senators’ organization so that Sens Nation can stop venting about a player what we all know already and give him a respite from this abuse.

This season can still be saved, but it starts with doing right by the organization, the players, the

fans and the player. It’s not Zaitsev’s fault that the Senators are where they are. He just can’t

fix it or even contribute meaningfully to the fix and asking him to do so night after night is

beyond loyalty and is bordering on cruel and unusual.


By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey