Senators defencemen traditionally wear black practice jerseys.
Given their recent run of health, a black-and-blue colour scheme would be more fitting for Ottawa’s blueliners. No fewer than three veteran D-men have been missing from the young-ish Senators roster – Dylan DeMelo, Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey, out for eight games, seven and four respectively.
So, for head coach D. J. Smith there was no better way to ring in the inaugural practice of the New Year than with Zaitsev back for his first skate with the team since getting injured by two separate shots he blocked against the Columbus Blue Jackets Dec. 14.
“We’re optimistic on Zaitsev,” Smith said on Wednesday. “We’ll see in the morning. But he’ll be back either (Thursday) or for the next game.”
The return of Zaitsev, possibly as soon as Thursday’s game against the visiting Florida Panthers, could mean a few less minutes for Thomas Chabot, who has emerged as the NHL’s per-game, time-on-ice leader with 26 minutes, 14 seconds on average. Chabot has already passed 1,000 minutes on the season, with 1,049 minutes played through 40 games.
Chabot’s ice time blew past the 30 mark for four straight games in December. In fact, Chabot became the first player to log more than 31 minutes in four consecutive games since Drew Doughty of the L. A. Kings from Feb. 18-25, 2016.
Rather effortlessly, Chabot posted TOI of 37:50 (a Senators franchise record), 33:49, 33:49 and 31:45 from Dec 17-23. Three of those games went to extra time. That’s not a typo – he hit 33:49 in back-to-back games. He’s that consistent.
For a time, it was thought Chabot had come close to a league record with that 37:50 performance on Dec. 17 versus Tampa Bay. But research by CBC statistician Karl Creighton (see Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts this week), has unearthed several 40-plus minutes performances, three of them by Ottawa native Adrian Aucoin. Aucoin actually has five of the top six times since TOI became an official statistic in 1997-98. The great Pavel Bure is the only other player to have recorded 40 or more minutes in a regular season game.
Aucoin’s top time: 40:51.
It begs the question – could Chabot handle 40 minutes in a single game?
We likely know the answer. He does, too.
“I think so, yeah,” says Chabot, as calm a player as there is in the game, on or off the ice. He takes everything in stride – that long and glorious stride.
“When you’re up around 38 minutes, you’re almost there,” he says. “And when you play that many minutes and you’re feeling good, you just keep going.”
Friedman notes that Chabot, who turns 23 on Jan. 30, recorded excellent VO2 tests, representing lung capacity, during the 2015 NHL draft combine. Chabot told me he has always taken pride in his cardio fitness, which seems to stem from a combination of natural stamina and a background in a number of childhood sports, including soccer.
Others think the secret to Chabot’s ability to eat minutes lies in his smooth skating stride, a rare gift which made the game come easier to the likes of Paul Coffey and Scott Niedermayer, artists on blades.
“I’ve said this to people, I think it’s just because (Chabot) is such an efficient skater,” says Chabot’s teammate, Mark Borowiecki. “You watch guys who can log minutes like that, and they always look effortless out there. It’s the same with him.
“Obviously he is well-conditioned,” adds the BoroCop. “We all are in this league. But the efficiency of his stride is so much better than a lot of us. It makes (the minutes) so much more manageable.
“For every 60 per cent of effort he puts in, I’m putting in well over a hundred.
20 minutes for him is like 80 for me.”
Chabot has 24 points in 40 games, including a team-leading 20 assists.
With Zaitsev back and DeMelo and Hainsey a week or more away from a return, Chabot’s ice time could return to something around the 25-minute mark. Smith has had to run AHL callups Erik Brannstrom, Andreas Englund and seventh D-man Cody Goloubef out to secure a blueline that Zaitsev, DeMelo and Hainsey patrolled with a level of experience the kids can’t match.
“In the NHL, one of the hardest positions to learn as a young guy is defence — centre and defence,” Smith says. “You need some older guys back there that can steady it a bit. Zaitsev will help with that.”
In theory, Smith would like to see Chabot playing 25 minutes or less.
But Smith is not about to commit on that one.
“For sure, it’s impressive, he skates so well he can log those minutes without really looking that tired,” Smith says. “In saying that, on nights he really has it maybe he will play 30 again, I don’t know.”
We know Chabot will roll with whatever happens.
“I think if you ask any player, you don’t mind playing more minutes,” he says. “But at the same time, it’s good to get some of our injured guys back because we need them as a team.”
After the brisk New Year’s Day practice, Zaitsev pronounced himself close to one hundred per cent healed from the rare upper AND lower-body injuries, the result of throwing his body in front of shots.
“It’s perfect,” Zaitsev says. “It’s real nice to skate with the boys again. We’ll see in the morning how it feels. But today was good. It’s huge progress, so hopefully I will play (Thursday).”
Zaitsev says he won’t hesitate to sacrifice his body again.
“It’s part of my game,” he says.
Pageau accepts fine, grudgingly
While pending UFA Jean-Gabriel Pageau is headed for a big payday, he’s poorer at the moment by $2,500, the amount he was fined by the NHL for his part in a late-game mix-up with Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday.
As players were separating from a scrum, Pageau took a swipe at Malkin’s head and Malkin responded with a high-stick to Pageau’s neck. Fortunately, he escaped injury.
“It’s never fun, a suspension or a fine,” Pageau says. “I’m not happy about it. But that’s the decision. “I understand their point of view, but that’s something that happens almost every game, after every whistle.
Pageau was asked if he thought he got fined because Malkin was going to get fined, and the league wanted to square things up.
“Maybe,” Pageau said. “I think there’s a difference between a stick in the neck and a push. I could have walked away, gone home. But there is a lot of emotion at the end of the game and I let myself go. And got fined for it.”