OTTAWA — For the past 12 months – since the departure of captain Erik Karlsson – Ottawa Senators fans have been looking for a sign from above.
A sign that management and ownership were willing and able to sign their best and brightest young talent to long-term contracts. Over the summer, there came an overture with the six-year contract to young centre Colin White.
A start. A solid start.
Now, the mother lode. On Thursday, the hockey club announced it had signed all-star, cornerstone defenceman Thomas Chabot, heir to Karlsson, to an eight-year contract worth $8 million U.S. per season. As Chabot still has a year left on his entry level deal, it effectively locks up Chabot for nine seasons.
"Today is a great day for Ottawa Senators fans," said general manager Pierre Dorion.
For a man who often dabbles in hyperbole, Dorion might have been understating things this time. Here’s an act that could actually stimulate a bump at the ticket office, where game sales have been challenging.
This signing was a massive show of faith to fans, grown jaded over the past year as Karlsson, Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel were traded away. Signing Chabot will convince many that perhaps this is a true rebuild and not a financial meltdown.
Chabot, of course, could have become a restricted free agent next summer, and the club would have risked offer sheets for the stylish defenceman.
For his part, the 22-year-old native of Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce, Que., could not have been more excited to have what he called a "life-changing" contract out of the way before the season starts.
"When you look at it, to have a chance to play in the best hockey league in the world, and a team that says that they want to rebuild and you’re a big part of it, you’re just lucky to have that, to be honest," Chabot said. "It’s a big chance for you as a hockey player."
While the two parties had been talking since July 1, the contract got done late Wednesday night, after the Senators had defeated the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 in a pre-season game.
Originally scheduled to play, Chabot was kept out of the game. Shortly before midnight, he got his parents out of bed to share the news of his sudden wealth.
Chabot will earn $7M in 2020-21, then $7M, $4M, $8M, $10M, $10M, $10M and $8M. As is customary with Senators contracts, there are no signing bonuses in the deal.
The largest contract in Senators history is a lot of money for a player with only two seasons in the NHL, but the first-round draft choice from 2015 (18th overall) produced 55 points in 71 games as a sophomore and is only scratching the surface of his talent.
"I knew I had a good season last year, but I can be a better player — that’s something we’re going to work on the next couple of years," Chabot said.
"It’s all about getting better in my own zone. It’s never going to be perfect, but if we can get really close to that I think it’s going to be good for us as a team."
This deal could be a steal for the Senators, who like the gamble that Chabot will continue to progress and stay healthy. It is reminiscent of the contract given a young Karlsson in 2012 (seven years, $45.5 million) as he was about to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenceman. That contract proved to be a bargain.
Chabot has Norris written all over his potential.
"For us, it just felt right," Dorion said. "And I think for them it also felt right.
"That says a lot about him as an individual but it also says a lot about his faith in what we’re doing here."
Chabot spoke with White throughout the process, just as the teammates had spoken during White’s negotiation.
What did they share, exactly?
"That’s private," White said, smiling.
"We’re all best friends, we enjoy being with each other and we see a bright future here," White added.
Whether this means the second franchise player, Brady Tkachuk, also signs long term remains to be seen. Tkachuk, entering his second NHL season, won’t be an RFA until after 2020-21. He said he is happy for Chabot and the team, but wouldn’t comment on his own contract.
"I mean that is still such a long way away," Tkachuk said. "I’m just thinking about tomorrow and getting better. I haven’t really thought about that at all."
Chabot spoke about the potential distraction if he hadn’t been able to sign until later in the season, with his RFA status approaching.
"It’s fun for it to be over," he said. "You’re trying to get ready for a season, but you hear about it (the contract talks). It’s part of being a human being. You think about it.
"Last year there were so many things about the trade deadline and everything and now that all that is behind us, I think it’s great for everyone to show up fresh at camp this year," Chabot said. "With a new coaching staff, we’re all getting to know each other, the identity and way we want to play — we can really focus on what we have in the locker room and build something for the future years."
Elsewhere, RFA players are holding out, hoping for a bigger deal, perhaps a bridge contract, but Chabot chose to re-up long term in beleaguered Ottawa. He sees things others might not about the franchise.
"I’m a kid from Quebec," Chabot said. "It’s close to my hometown. From Day 1 that I’ve been here, every fan has welcomed me really well.
"Any time you’re a hockey player, all you want to do is go out and do your best and when you have fans that really appreciate what you do out there, it’s the best thing you could ever ask for."