What do you see when you watch Thomas Chabot?
When I watch the 25-year-old Ottawa Senator, I see one of the 32 best defencemen in the NHL. A smooth-skating thoroughbred. A big-minute-logging, talented, versatile player who’s well on his way to what will be a highly successful career.
But I often think about what Chabot was before he got to Ottawa and how he had the potential to become a top-five defenceman in this league by now and would probably be considered that already if he had been properly insulated through the first 300 games of his career.
I think about all these talented, young players who have come through Ottawa in recent years and dealt with similar circumstances.
I think about another 25-year-old named Colin White. A centreman who was drafted 21st overall by the Senators in 2015, promoted full-time to the NHL in 2017, signed to a six-year, $28.5-million contract in 2019 and pushed into a role that would have him facing off against some of the league’s best players at his position. All this without enjoying the benefit of having someone else above him in the lineup to carry some of the burden.
I think about how White had his contract bought out in 2022 and about how his experience now makes it entirely unlikely he’ll ever fulfill the promise everyone saw in him early in his career.
The Senators chose to scorch earth as a rebuild model. They weren’t the first team and won’t be the last to strip away almost all the veterans from their roster to collect as many future assets as possible and get themselves into the premium draft positions required to re-emerge as contenders. With that said, I wonder if it really will all come together for them as they now finally step into their competitive window.
There’s no question Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson and Chabot are exceptional players. But will they suffer a bit in those crucial moments to come for having not been exposed during key developmental years to enough good veterans who could’ve insulated them on the ice and shown them what goes into winning off of it?
Perhaps some of the moves for good veterans Senators GM Pierre Dorion made this past off-season will help mitigate that potential roadblock.
We’ll find out, I suppose.
But I think Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes have taken a less risky approach to guiding the Montreal Canadiens through the rebuild process.
The executive vice president of hockey operations and his general manager want to ensure their young players evolve in a healthy environment. The moves they’re making (and not making) are completely in that vein—even if some of them could prohibit the Canadiens from landing as high up in the draft order as the Senators have over the last number of years.
Gorton and Hughes could’ve tried to move Christian Dvorak this past off-season but wanted to keep the 26-year-old centre in place to insulate 23-year-old Nick Suzuki and 21-year-old Kirby Dach. They could’ve moved Jeff Petry exclusively for futures but brought back 28-year-old Mike Matheson from Pittsburgh to help ensure they aren’t fully throwing their young, talented defencemen into a fire they’re unprepared for.
They could’ve handed the starting goaltending position to 23-year-old Cayden Primeau and traded Jake Allen over the summer for a draft pick but instead decided to hold Allen and sign him to a two-year, $7.7-million extension on Saturday, and I think it’s all smart business.
The Montreal roster is still constructed to achieve the type of result that will likely yield a high draft pick next summer. It could be constructed in such a way to guarantee it, but perhaps at the cost of shattering the confidence of the youngsters who will later be expected to develop into the players who can carry this team when it’s expected to contend.
That’s a risk Gorton and Hughes aren’t willing to take, and that’s why they signed Allen.
He’s the right type of veteran to hold onto: A Stanley Cup winner who’s willing to forgo another chance at winning in what could still be considered the prime years of his career.
That Allen understands what Gorton and Hughes are trying to do, that he’s on board with it, and that he’s putting the team ahead of himself and, in doing so, serving as the type of role model you want around your young players made the decision to sign him a no-brainer.
“I want to be part of this process. I really do,” the goaltender told reporters after signing his contract Saturday morning. “I think since management in the organization changed over the last year, I really see what they’re trying to build here and I want to be part of it. And I signed up for that and I think that was part of signing the extension here. I feel that I want to leave this jersey in a better spot than when I put it on…
“I’ve had that chance to win, but I want to see these guys win in the future and think I can be a big part of that to start this process.”
Considering how Allen conducts himself on and off the ice, there’s a good chance he’ll get what he wants.
“First, he’s an excellent person. The type you want in your culture,” said Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis after Allen spoke. “Second, he’s an excellent goalie.
“It’s not just stopping pucks that he brings; he’s a leader, a very good example for our young guys with the way he comports himself. He’s a professional.”
So is Sean Monahan, who came to the Canadiens (along with a premium draft pick) as a salary dump for the Calgary Flames this past summer.
He will help Dvorak play that critical role of insulating Montreal’s young centres.
The Canadiens didn’t have to re-sign Chris Wideman, but they gave him a new contract and they’ll likely look for more veteran help on the blue line to ensure Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Justin Barron and Arber Xhekaj aren’t rushed or overexposed.
The need to do this at the goaltending position is even greater, and not just because it’s so hard to find good talent there.
As Allen pointed out on Saturday, the development process for goaltenders is longer than it is for other types of players.
“I think it took me eight or nine years in the professional ranks to really figure out what would work for me and what my game looks like and where my game should be,” he said, adding that the last four years of his 12 in the pros have been his best.
Now he’s paying it forward, and doing so on a deal that is not only cost-effective given his talent and standing in the league but also fits well with what he wants from a personal standpoint.
The 32-year-old is happy to be a bit closer in proximity to his home province of New Brunswick, and he’s happy to be valued for who and what he is at this stage of his career in a system where middle-class players are getting the short end of the stick in free agency.
Allen could’ve played out the season, hoped for good results and waited for a contender to call on his services on the open market, but as he put it, “The grass isn’t always greener (on the other side).”
There was no reason for the Canadiens to wait. They’ve put a premium on properly developing their young players so that those players are given the best possible avenue to later fulfill their potential.
If all goes well, Primeau, with Allen’s help, will become the goaltender many thought he would be when the Canadiens brought him in after two banner years in the NCAA.
And if Allen does his job right and continues to play as he has over his last two years with Montreal—as a reliable goaltender with reasonable statistics considering the roster in front of him—he can still be moved at a later point in time for future assets.
The contract he signed carries a $3.8-million cap hit but pays him only $3.3 million in actual dollars over the final year of it. That, on top of his pedigree as a winner and a role model, could make him that much more attractive to other teams in two-and-a-half years—even at 35 years old.
But keeping him around for the next little while buys the Canadiens time to build at the goaltending position and serves as less risky team-building strategy.
“I read this quote the other day and it really resonated with me: ‘You need guys that are willing to plant trees knowing they’ll never sit in the shade,’” said St. Louis. “You need guys like that and Jake is that.”
I don’t think the Senators are the only team who needed more guys like that over the initial years of their rebuild.
The Edmonton Oilers (through two rebuilds), Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes all come to mind, too.
I think the Canadiens are wise for going about it differently.