June 3, 2023

The Ottawa Senators are currently 4-8-0, have lost six straight games, and are on the verge of losing their season before it even gets started. On Wednesday, Nov. 9, they placed Nikita Zaitsev on waivers. He has two years remaining on his contract, which is valued at $4.5 million per season. The 31-year-old has played seven games this season and recorded one assist while playing on the third-pairing.

After all the moves made in the offseason, there was hope surrounding this team as a potential playoff contender. Now, those expectations have shortened quite a bit as they are struggling to win hockey games. Placing Zaitsev on waivers was the correct decision, for many reasons.

Defence Was Not Getting the Job Done as a Whole

Zaitsev played over 15 minutes with Thomas Chabot, Erik Brannstrom, and Nick Holden, and all three pairings had a Corsi percentage (CF%) of less than 50 percent. He also found himself with a plus/minus of minus-3 through the first seven games and got outscored 4-2 at even strength.

Nikita Zaitsev Ottawa Senators
Nikita Zaitsev, Ottawa Senators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Are all of the defensive issues Zaitsev’s fault? Not exactly, but the decision to go with youth over the veteran is something that needed to happen. They are in last place in the Atlantic Division and need a spark defensively to save their season.

Related: Senators Have 3 Good Trade Targets to Improve the Defence

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While they are scoring 3.5 goals per game, they are allowing 3.67, which is very problematic for their immediate success. Part of the reason that number is so high is because of goaltending, as Cam Talbot is just now returning from an injury, but the defence is allowing too many high-danger chances for their goaltender to save.

The Senators’ right side is struggling the most. Travis Hamonic has failed to find his footing, and Artem Zub is still working his way back from an upper-body injury. Chabot, Jake Sanderson, and Brannstrom have been doing good work from the left side, but this team is in dire need of an upgrade.

Whether that upgrade comes from a trade with another team, or an internal upgrade from the American Hockey League (AHL), the Senators needed to make a change.

The Emergence of Jacob Bernard-Docker

Jacob Bernard-Docker got into his first NHL action of the season on Tuesday, Nov. 8 against the Vancouver Canucks. He immediately got put onto the top-pairing alongside Chabot, and clearly showed the coaching staff enough to be comfortable putting Zaitsev on waivers.

Bernard-Docker finished the game with an assist, and Money Puck had the duo recording a 76% expected goals percentage, which was good for the best pairing on either team. While Zub likely retains his role once he returns, Bernard-Docker has the potential to provide a big boost to the right side of the Senators’ defence, a spot where the team is lacking talent.

Jacob Bernard-Docker Ottawa Senators
Jacob Bernard-Docker, Ottawa Senators (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Bernard-Docker played 58 games as a part of the Bellville Senators last season and recorded nine points with a plus/minus of plus-11. The former first-round pick of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft is a restricted free agent (RFA) after this season, and he will look to earn another contract with the Senators if he can remain in the NHL.

Should Any More Changes Follow for the Senators?

Waiving Zaitsev is a step in the right direction for improving the current state of the Senators. There has been lots of talk amongst the fanbase about a potential coaching change. Head coach D.J. Smith being fired may shake up the room, but the truth is, this Senators team has been playing well enough to win.

At some point, the results will need to follow for them to make the playoffs, but the process is there. They currently have worked their way to ninth in the NHL with an expected goals percentage of 53.4%. Their goaltending was projected to be league-average, and so far it has been just that.

Ottawa Senators Celebrate
Ottawa Senators Celebrate (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Alex DeBrincat has only two goals this season, and one of them came on an empty net. They paid a hefty price to acquire him, and are relying on him returning to form. He’s currently rocking a 2.63 percent shooting percentage (S%), which is bound to go up closer to his career average of 14.9 percent.

The Senators’ next five games feature the New Jersey Devils twice, along with the Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers, and New York Islanders. This isn’t an easy stretch by any means, but it’s the exact type of stretch that they will need to dominate to improve their playoff odds. Money Puck gives them a 31.3 percent chance to make the playoffs, and if they fail to make up ground shortly, that number is sure to go down even further.

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