If someone mentioned there was an Ottawa Senators’ defenseman among the league leaders in assists and plus-minus four games into the season, Thomas Chabot would quickly come to mind.
Likewise, could you name the Senators’ forward who’s skated a total of 62 minutes, including 8:30 on the penalty kill, without being on the ice for an opposition goal?
To say that Zaitsev has been a pleasant surprise is an understatement. Acquired in July 1, 2019 with Connor Brown in a multi-player trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs which saw d-man Cody Ceci leave Ottawa, Zaitsev has added an offensive flair to his game not seen since his rookie season in 2016-17.
The 29-year old posted 36 points (four goals, 32 assists) in his first NHL campaign with Toronto after playing six seasons in the KHL. Since then, Zaitsev has posted campaigns of 14, 11, and a 2019-2020 total of only 12 points (one goal, 11 assists).
In only four games in the early going, the right-side d-man has already posted five assists, four of which are primary. Only Jack Eichel, Quinn Hughes, Anze Kopitar, Mark Stone (6) have more assists than the Moscow native.
Zaitsev appears to have more jump in his stride, and is exuding confidence when handling the puck. He’s pinching in at the opposition blue line – something rarely seen last season – making positive decisions.
In addition to assists, Zaitsev is tops on the team with a plus-five rating. While analytic numbers will fluctuate as the season continues, Zaitsev’s current mark of a 55.2 percent Corsi mark is the highest it’s been in his five NHL seasons. Last season Zaitsev posted a career-worst 44.8 percent mark.
Senators’ head coach D.J. Smith noted, “The thing a lot of people might not understand, in Toronto he got every defensive zone start. When you start in your own zone, you don’t get the offensive touches, and Morgan Rielly, (Jake) Gardiner – and all those guys, got all the offensive zone starts. And now he’s getting offensive starts or more than he’s had, With (Josh) Brown and (Braydon) Coburn, they’re getting the defensive zone starts. They’re not providing the shots, shot attempts we’d like from them. I think Z’s always had it in him. I think he’s a defender that’s getting a few more opportunities to start in the offensive zone, and he’s doing well with it.”
A man of few words, Zaitsev echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“I feel pretty good. I’ve gotten more time in the o-zone this year,” said Zaitsev.
Freshly signed to a two-year contract in October, Paul may have been the Senators’ most improved player last season. Paul has picked up where he left off, and is making even more strides.
Skating on the left side on a line with centre Chris Tierney and right wing Connor Brown, Paul has yet to be on the ice for a goal allowed. The 25-year old has added one goal, one assist himself in four contests.
In a listless 4-1 loss to Winnipeg Thursday, Paul was elevated to the team’s second line which featured newcomer Evgenii Dadonov, in an attempt to crash the net and provide some much-needed offence.
It’s likely Paul will remain on a line with Dadonov in the Senators’ first road game in Winnipeg Saturday.
While the line didn’t score, Paul’s head coach told Full Press NHL, “Going on the road, you aren’t going to get matchups. I think arguably, Nick Paul might be our most consistent player through four games. He wins the fitness award every year. So as the games go on and the schedule gets harder, he doesn’t get tired. He looks like he brought a little more confidence with the puck. He’s a guy willing to go get it. Every team has got that guy on their team that can do a little bit of everything. Nick Paul is that guy. He might be a guy that can spark a line,” said Smith.
Paul who’s in his sixth pro season, didn’t always play with the confidence Smith mentioned. The Mississauga, ON native admitted a year ago that he changed his mental approach to the game, and in life – taking up meditation.
“I just do the same thing that I do every year, put my head down and work, do what’s asked of me – team first. I’m not trying to go through a team and put up a bunch of points. Whatever the team needs of me, whether it’s shutdown or they need me to go penalty kill, I’m there blocking shots – doing whatever I need to do. I’m just putting my head down doing whatever I have to do,” Paul commented during last Saturday’s postgame via Zoom.