Not many pundits picked the Ottawa Senators to make the playoffs last season. Most think they’ll tumble back down to earth next year, though they were one stroke of puck luck from reaching the Stanley Cup Final this spring. As the offseason begins in full next week with the NHL Expansion Draft on Wednesday and NHL Entry Draft over the weekend, there is another item giving fuel to the Senators’ skeptics.
General manager Pierre Dorion couldn’t entice Dion Phaneuf to waive his no-movement clause, which means the club could lose defenseman Marc Methot to the Vegas Golden Knights.
That would be a devastating loss for the Senators, but help is on the way in the form of Thomas Chabot.
The 20-year-old left-shot defenseman has crushed it in the QMJHL since the Senators drafted him in the first round (18th overall) of the 2015 draft. He was voted the CHL Defenseman of the Year for 2016-17 — joining Dougie Hamilton (2011-12), Keith Yandle (2005-06), Ryan Ellis (2010-11) and Ivan Provorov (2015-16) — and was named Most Valuable Player at the World Junior Championships.
Mobile, heady and offensively gifted, there is an air of “can’t miss” surrounding Chabot, who scored 45 points in 34 games for St. John this season, and added 23 more in 18 playoff games to lead the Sea Dogs to the President’s Cup. Along with Tampa Bay’s Mikhail Sergachev, Chabot is poised to be one of the most impactful defenders of the current 20-and-under set.
Chabot is a wizard on the offensive side of the puck who can spearhead the rush or join it. In the offensive zone he is adept at moving laterally around defenders to create premium scoring chances or draw enough attention to open up passing lanes for streaking forwards. When he has time and space to shoot or move in on a goalie, Chabot chooses to go for accuracy rather than heat.
If he blossoms into his full potential, the Senators could have one of the NHL’s best blue lines for years to come, regardless of what happens with Methot next week. With Erik Karlsson still 27 and considered by most to be the best defenseman in the league, the Senators could have the Swede anchor a top pair while Chabot drives a “1B” pairing that could give opposing NHL coaches nightmares. With Karlsson drawing the hard minutes, Chabot could benefit from easier matchups the way Brent Burns does in San Jose.
As it stands, the Senators are a Jekyll-and-Hyde team which is prolific with Karlsson on the ice and wanting with the Swede on the bench. Chabot’s emergence could change the tone of Ottawa’s second pairing and also upgrade the No. 1 power-play unit, giving the Senators a lethal left-right combo at the points (Chabot might need to cut his teeth on the top pairing with Karlsson running decoy for him, but that arrangement isn’t likely to be permanent if it occurs).
It all sounds great in theory, but in reality Chabot has lots of work to do – there’s a reason he was sent back to juniors last season after just one NHL game. He needs to develop his defense and become better away from the puck and in coverage.
Like a lot of gifted playmaking defensemen, Chabot has been told he needs to become a better two-way player to thrive in the NHL. This is the message from coach Guy Boucher and staff, and it’s one the Quebec native took back to juniors after spending training camp with the Senators last fall.
“They told me that I’m a good player with the puck but the thing I have to work on is in my own zone, playing stronger on pucks, harder in the corners,” Chabot told Sportsnet while at the Memorial Cup in May. “That’s something I work on a lot with the coaches here (in juniors). I’m just trying to be a better two-way defenseman. That’s something I’m working a lot on to bring back to camp next year.”
Chabot has one NHL game on his resume, so it’s hard to project how his impressive skills will translate to the NHL, or if he can adjust his freewheeling style to accommodate Boucher’s discerning tastes.
The Senators have been careful with Chabot, most likely because of Boucher’s reservations and the organization’s recent history with first-round draft picks. Of the first-rounders selected between 2009-13, only Cody Ceci is still with the club (they did not have a first-round pick in 2014). The move to give Chabot more seasoning in juniors, and more time with Sea Dogs’ defense coach Paul Boutilier, should pay dividends. Not only did Chabot get to win a championship with St. John and play in the World Junior Final in Montreal, but he should come to camp this September with a chip on his shoulder and the determination to prove he is good enough to play in the NHL.
“My goal at the start of the year was to play in the NHL,” said Chabot this May. “I had the chance to start the season up there and learn a lot about myself on and off the ice.”
After two impressive years in juniors, the time is now for Chabot to take what he has learned and put it to use in a Senators sweater. He has been sheltered long enough. The best thing Ottawa can do for Chabot’s career and the future of their blue line is to throw him out there with Karlsson and let him continue his development while learning from the best.
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