Let’s begin this column with a moment of appreciation for Thomas Chabot.
For a bunch of reasons, but mostly because he makes the game look easy, the Senators’ smooth and classy defenceman is among the most overlooked elite defenceman in the NHL.
Playing nearly 27 minutes per game (26:51), Chabot, 25, is one of the few plus players on the Senators despite logging all those minutes on a team with a goal differential of -24.
When Drake Batherson got hurt on that reckless hit from then-Buffalo goalie Aaron Dell and was unable to attend the NHL All-Star Game, Chabot could have been a rightful replacement. Captain Brady Tkachuk, also an excellent option, went instead. Maybe the team wanted to give Chabot a badly needed weekend off.
Regardless, the loss of Chabot this week, shaken up on a massive but clean hit from the Capitals’ Tom Wilson last Sunday, has dramatically impacted the Senators. It was most apparent in Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to St. Louis, but also in Thursday’s grimy 3-1 win over the Sabres in Buffalo, where head coach D.J. Smith scrambled his D-pairings like breakfast eggs to find something that worked.
Minus Chabot, there is no anchor on the blueline. Chabot’s minutes were spread out among the rest of the blueline corps, which, let’s be honest – is not close to how it will look when this team has more of its long-term pieces in place over the next couple of seasons.
Against Buffalo, six minor penalties – three by Erik Brannstrom – meant defence and penalty killing was at a premium. Tellingly, Nick Holden, arguably Ottawa’s steadiest defenceman this season, played the most minutes – an almost Chabot-like 25:15. That Holden also chipped in with two assists is what you call a big bonus.
Zach Sanford, Austin Watson and Brady Tkachuk, into an empty net, scored the Senators goals. Ottawa gave up an early power-play goal before scoring three unanswered.
“We got better as the game went on,” Watson said.
Smith said the team took a page from the St. Louis Blues in learning how to shut down the Sabres in the third period.
Despite Chabot’s absence, and partly because of it, prospects like Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson remain in AHL Belleville. The organization doesn’t want those two exposed, if it can be helped, without Chabot in the lineup.
Before the game in Buffalo, Smith said he would prefer to have Bernard-Docker and Thomson in Ottawa when the roster is healthier and Ottawa is more competitive. He doesn’t want them having to defend at a time when the Senators are missing star players Chabot, Josh Norris and Batherson.
“When we have them here, we have the puck more,” Smith said. “(Bernard-Docker, Thomson) will be back up here, but I think putting them in the right spot is key.”
Smith went on to support the plan of getting his rookie defencemen more professional minutes in the AHL.
“The American Hockey League is the best development league there is,” Smith said. “There’s a reason so many players have gone through the AHL.”
Of course, the trade deadline and potential move of a veteran or two could change the makeup of Ottawa’s roster in late March. Whatever happens, Smith says he is looking forward to getting some of the team’s prized prospects here to “see what we have” for the future.
In the present ... Chabot is out with an “upper-body” injury and should be back soon, but Smith reiterated he is not taking any chances with Chabot, Norris or Shane Pinto (recovering from shoulder surgery), and wants them at 100 per cent before putting them back in the lineup.
Centres Colin White (shoulder) and Norris look to be among the first of the injured forwards to return. Both are back skating. Norris on his own, and White with the full group. He is slated for a late February return to action.
In the short term, Ottawa’s blueline is a patchwork quilt. Against all odds, Josh Brown continues to get valuable playing time, while Brannstrom and Victor Mete saw their minutes reduced in Thursday’s shorthanded special.
Brannstrom did have two assists against the Blues and has looked good quarterbacking the first power-play unit in the absence of Chabot, but Smith wants to see Brannstrom shoot more. He had zero shots on goal against St. Louis and Buffalo.
“He’s got to get pucks to the net,” Smith said. “Guys who get points in this league get pucks to the net, you’ve got to shoot the puck. It’s tough to pass it to a goal, it happens. But most of the time it comes off shots for the D. So, the more shots he can get to the net, the more success he’ll have.”
Fans in Ottawa who are aware of the prospect pipeline can’t help but think of this current blueline allotment as place holders until the future D-corps arrives. Up front, a lot of the pieces are already in place with Tkachuk, Norris, Batherson, Tim Stützle, Pinto et al.
But on the blueline, Chabot and Artem Zub might be the only regulars who will still be here in a couple of years time. Veteran Holden, who recently signed a contract extension to cover next season, has been a nice addition and brings a calming presence.
As early as next fall, it is possible to imagine blueline pairings of Chabot-Zub, Jake Sanderson-Holden, Bernard-Docker and Thomson. Nikita Zaitsev will still be here if he and his contract aren’t moved. A little further down the road, big Tyler Kleven of the University of North Dakota is going to be a key physical element.
Where does Brannstrom fit in? It could be that he doesn’t.
For now, little "Branny" is getting a huge opportunity with Chabot out. He will have to stay out of the box if he is going to stay out of Smith’s doghouse.