Through four games of the 2018-19 season, the Ottawa Senators are surviving. The team many believed will finish last overall has already beaten the rival Toronto Maple Leafs (Toronto’s only loss so far) and at least looked scrappy in the other contests. While expectations for the squad aren’t high, the Senators do have some young players who will get great chances to spread their wings this season. Brady Tkachuk just potted his first two NHL goals for example, while Alex Formenton’s speed gives him a ton of promise up front. On the back end, Max Lajoie was a surprise addition to the opening night roster and the former Swift Current Broncos ace has been on an offensive tear. But the key figure on the back end is Thomas Chabot.
The offensively-gifted rearguard is kicking off his sophomore NHL campaign and the first without Erik Karlsson in the lineup. While Chabot recognizes the situation, he’s not going to let it burden him.
“It’s still pretty much my first full year from the start,” he said. “Every night I take advantage of my role and the ice time I have. I don’t necessarily feel more pressure, I just want to help the team win.”
Chabot went a little viral after his two-goal, three-point effort against Toronto, which included a spiritual undressing of rookie D-man Igor Ozhiganov. The Senators blueliner was rushing the puck up the ice when he noticed Ozhiganov open his feet while attempting a poke-check, prompting Chabot to weave the puck through the enemy defenseman’s legs en route to a fabulous goal on Frederik Andersen. It’s that kind of sequence that should have Ottawa fans excited for Chabot’s future.
“The ceiling is high, real high,” said coach Guy Boucher. “Defensively I think he’ll become just as good over time. He’s got the mobility and a terrific stick and it’s just experience now. I have so much faith in his abilities.”
So much so, that Boucher wasn’t willing to rush the youngster. To date, Chabot is best remembered for his tour-de-force performance at the 2017 world juniors, when he played monster minutes in the instant-classic gold medal game that saw Canada fall to Team USA in a shootout. Chabot was named MVP of the tournament and the future looked bright. But he still had to earn his stripes in the NHL and last season, that meant an assignment to AHL Belleville straight out of camp.
“To start in the American League was a little disappointing, but I got down there and took advantage of it,” Chabot said. “When I got the chance to come back here, I enjoyed it and it’s been big for me for sure.”
In the end, Chabot played 63 games for Ottawa last season, putting up a respectable 25 points in 17:31 average ice time. He even got to play on a pairing with Karlsson, which gave Chabot a first-hand education on how the sublime Swede made plays and processed the game.
This year, Chabot has bolted out of the gates with six points in four games while logging 22 minutes of ice time per night – the most of any skater on the team. How long will that last? It’s a decision that the Ottawa coaching staff is well aware of, especially as the better teams in the league settle in to a groove.
“We know we have the young defense that can jump in the play,” Boucher said. “Over time, we have to figure out how to balance that offense with being able to defend. They’re being asked to take on a lot more than normally you’d want them to take. Shelter them as much as you want, but at the same time you want to get them out there and learn.”
Pairing Chabot with veteran Dylan DeMelo (acquired from San Jose in the Karlsson deal) seems to have helped. Boucher credits ‘Mellow’ with bringing a calming presence to the back end, while using his smarts and doing the simple things right. That’s a great influence to have on a player such as Chabot, who has the high-end skills you can’t teach and just needs to round out his game.
Over the summer, Chabot talked to Boucher and associate coach Marc Crawford about the defense position and how usually a blueliner hits his prime at 23 or 24 years old. Chabot entered this campaign as a 21-year-old. With all the ice time and experience he’ll get in the next few seasons, Chabot has the chance to really make noise by the time he hits that prime age bracket.