The Ottawa Senators aren’t sure if they’ll get a chance to suit up for the final 11 games of this National Hockey League season.
But they’re taking some time during the current break in the action to cast a glance towards next season.
With the schedule paused because of the spread of the novel coronavirus, pretty much of every aspect of the business has been put on hold, with the NHL informing teams on Tuesday to stay in self-isolation until at least April 15. Behind the scenes, though, general manager Pierre Dorion and Senators hockey operations staff are busy preparing for the day they do return to the Canadian Tire Centre.
While head coach D.J. Smith and his assistants have likely spent part of their time away from the rink putting in place plans for a mini-training camp, if the season does resume, Dorion has been working from his home office, and it’s expectation that soon the Senators will announce the signing of Russian defenceman Artyom Zub.
A 24-year-old free agent, Zub has spent the past four seasons with St. Petersburg SKA in the Kontinental Hockey League. While his KHL contract doesn’t expire until April 30, it’s believed Zub has already decided to sign with the Senators and both sides are waiting from clearance from the NHL’s Central Registry to make the signing official.
TSN’s Darren Dreger reported last week that Zub was down to two teams on his list and then confirmed he expected him to sign here later in the week. There were as many as 20 teams that kicked tires with Zub’s Detroit-based agent, Daniel Milstein, and it’s thought Zub has chosen to sign with the Senators because he feels he’ll get a good opportunity to play a big role.
Yes, Zub still must adjust to playing the North American style, but the Senators can offer an opportunity to play in the top four on defence after dealing Dylan DeMelo to the Winnipeg Jets before the February trade deadline. Dorion and assistant GM Peter MacTavish went overseas in January to get a first-hand look at Zub and liked what they saw.
Zub was part of the Russian team that won the men’s Olympic hockey gold medal in Pyeonchang in 2018 and he was impressive.
“He’s got good size and range,” NBC’s Pierre McGuire, who saw Zub play in South Korea, said in a text message Tuesday. “He plays a simple, smart defensive game, a stabilizing player in his own zone. He’s very solid, useful and mature player. He should be able to crack the top four and it shouldn’t be much of an adjustment for him to play on the small ice surfaces.”
That’s good news for the Senators.
They already have a lot of prospects on defence, including Belleville’s Christian Wolanin, Erik Brannstrom, Andreas Englund and Max Lajoie. Elsewhere, they have the rights to Finnish blueliner Lassi Thomson, both Jacob Bernard-Docker and Johnny Tychonick at the University of North Dakota and Olie Alsing in Sweden.
It’s expected they’ll re-sign veteran defenceman Mark Borowiecki, a pending unrestricted free agent, and Ron Hainsey may also return. Wolanin had shoulder surgery that forced him to miss most of the season, but will finish the year in Belleville if the American Hockey League resumes play, and both he and Brannstrom should push for NHL roster spots next season.
The Senators don’t need anybody fancy on the back end. They already get that kind of play from Thomas Chabot, and they expect Brannstrom to play that role eventually. Zub has been described by NHL scouts as somebody who can be a steadying influence because he doesn’t try to do anything he can’t do, and the Senators need to improve in their own end.
Mike Reilly and Nikita Zaitsev are also under contract. Zaitsev and Zub share the same agent, so that should help with the latter’s move to North America. Zub had 13 goals and nine assists in 57 games with St. Petersburg this season.
“I feel like he’s going to slide in as a good partner for somebody to fill that hole left by DeMelo. If he signs with Ottawa, he’s going to get the opportunity to play a lot,” a league executive said last week. “He’s an NHL-ready player. He can come in and play NHL games. You’re not signing a college kid that needs to come in and get stronger or get experience.
“This guy has played at world championships, he’s played for the national team (in Russia). He’s never going to wow anybody, but he’s a right-shot defenceman and he’s an upgrade for a team like Ottawa. He’d bump ahead of some guys on the depth chart. I would think (Ottawa) would stand a good chance because I know that they’ve been on him for a while.”
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