Nikita Zaitsev’s bumpy journey with the Ottawa Senators is finally over.
On Wednesday, the Chicago Blackhawks agreed to acquire Zaitsev, but the Sens had to sweeten the deal a little first.
Ottawa had to throw in their second-round draft pick this year and their fourth rounder in 2026. In return, callous as it sounds, the Senators get to stop paying Zaitsev to play hockey for them. He has a $4.5 million per year contract, which runs through next season. The Sens also get the coveted “future considerations,” which could be as little as a 2 for 1 coupon at Manny’s Deli in Chicago.
Combined with the Alex DeBrincat deal, Chicago now owns a decent amount of Ottawa’s future, having acquired the Senators’ 7th and 39th overall selections last summer (Seattle star defenceman Kevin Korchinski and Kingston centre Paul Ludwinski), plus a third-round selection in 2024.
“We’re pleased to afford Nikita a fresh start,” said GM Pierre Dorion in a club statement. “He’s a pro’s pro who showcased himself to be a caring teammate and quiet leader throughout his Sens tenure. We’re thankful for his time in Ottawa and wish he and his family the best in his next chapter.”
Providing Zaitsev with kindness and the chance at a fresh start may not be the primary reason for the move.
Zaitsev was no longer a consistently effective NHL defenceman. His game had faded to the point where the Senators were able to send him to the minors this season with no one in the NHL interested in claiming him off waivers for free. The deal creates physical and financial room for Dorion to bring in a much-needed defenceman via trade before the March 3rd deadline. But everyone is trying to find good defenseman, so that’s easier said than done. Way easier.
Zaitsev was clearly a D.J. Smith favourite from day one. He came to Ottawa via trade from Toronto, a few months after Smith had also arrived from the Leafs. Smith was often criticized for his unwavering faith in Zaitsev over the last four years. Even after Zaitsev returned from Belleville, Smith would still shoehorn the 31-year old into the his lineup and frequently place him on the top pairing. Like a scene right out of the Brad Pitt movie, Moneyball, perhaps the GM traded the player so the coach would stop using him.
Looking back on the original Zaitsev trade with Toronto, the Sens definitely got the best player. It was Connor Brown, who also arrived in the package deal, with Cody Ceci going to Toronto. While the Sens paid a second rounder and a fourth rounder to inspire Chicago to take Zaitsev on Wednesday, the Washington Capitals paid only a second rounder last summer to acquire Brown, one of the Sens’ top forwards the past three years.
The Zaitsev dump is exactly the kind of move a team makes because it’s working to trade for an upgrade on defence. But that’s what people thought about the Brown deal last summer. Now the Brown deal stands only as a head scratcher.
Perhaps this is a chance for the Sens to finally make Jacob Bernard-Docker a full time NHL player. JBD was a first rounder from almost five years ago, drafted by Ottawa the same year as Brady Tkachuk, and yet he’s played only 26 NHL games. It feels like it’s well past time to see what Bernard-Docker can do, just as it was well past time for the Sens to admit defeat and turn the page on Zaitsev.
By Steve Warne