Ottawa Senators: Defence Pairings Outlook for 2020-21

The Ottawa Senators’ defence situation is fluid, with only a few locks to be in the lineup on opening night.

The Senators have four defensemen signed to one-way deals through the 2020-21 season. Among those is Thomas Chabot, who just inked an eight-year contract extension, as well as Nikita Zaitsev, Mike Rielly and Christian Wolanin. It remains to be seen where newly-signed Russian defenceman Artyom Zub will start the season.

Thomas Chabot is guaranteed to be on the top pairing, shouldering the responsibility of the number one defenceman on the team. His partner on the other hand is up in the air at this point.

Ever since Dylan DeMelo was traded to the Winnipeg Jets, the Senators have struggled to find a suitable replacement to be Chabot’s partner. They tried pairing Chabot with former Toronto Maple Leaf Nikita Zaitsev, but he wasn’t up to the task. Zaitsev fits into a bottom-four role, and should only be playing top minutes in an emergency situation.

Another option is Artyom Zub, but it’s probably not a good idea to put him on the top-pairing in his rookie NHL season. Depending on his play he could be playing top minutes later in the year. I wouldn’t hold my breath though, he seems to project as a middle-pairing defensive-defenceman.

Despite currently being the third-highest paid defenseman on the Ottawa Senators for 2020-21, Mike Rielly projects as a third-pairing AHL/NHL defenceman. He will have to struggle for a roster spot, much less make the top-pairing.

The Ottawa Senators may decide to re-sign one of, or both Ron Hainsey and Mark Borowiecki, but it’s highly unlikely they will be on the top-pairing.

There are two feasible solutions to this problem. One is to simply sign a defenceman in free agency. The second is to place the unproven 20-year-old Erik Brannstrom alongside Thomas Chabot.

There is a strong chance Pierre Dorion will go out and sign a quality defenceman to play alongside Chabot, at least for the short term. One name that jumps out is Chris Tanev of the Vancouver Canucks.

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A Toronto, Ontario native, it was widely believed that Tanev would strongly consider signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now though, with the cap staying at $81.5 million for the next couple of seasons, that eliminates many teams from the equation including Toronto.

This potentially opens up a door for Pierre Dorion and the Ottawa Senators. Most of the teams that are in a cap-crunch right now are better positioned to win than the teams with lesser cap troubles.

If Chris Tanev wanted to go to a contender after the 2019-20 season, it would be nearly impossible for most potential teams to afford his contract. That leaves teams at the bottom like the Ottawa Senators, New Jersey Devils and the Anaheim Ducks in a great position to benefit from other teams woes.

The second pairing will likely be Christian Wolanin on the left side and Erik Brannstrom on the right side. Wolanin was on the way to becoming a bonafide top-four defenceman until he tore his labrum and missed most of the 2019-20 season. The Senators will give him another shot in the 2020-21 season.

Brannstrom had a quiet season, playing a low-down role in Ottawa for 34 games before being sent down to Belleville to continue his development. The Senators have high-hopes for the Swedish-defenceman as they practically traded him alone for Mark Stone.

The third defensive-pairing will be one of the most fluid positions in the Ottawa Senators lineup. It is very likely they will re-sign Mark Borowiecki, as Pierre Dorion said, “We want to make Boro a Senator for life”.

Borowiecki plays mostly on the left-side but as one of the most versatile players on the team, he can easily switch to the right-side if needed. The other defenceman on that pairing will likely be a revolving door. Mike Rielly, Christian Jaros, Nikita Zaitsev and Artyom Zub will all see time in the NHL, but only one or two at a time.