With Anton Forsberg on top of his game, Josh Norris’ return, and Drake Batherson slated to rejoin the team soon as well, the Ottawa Senators were in prime position to finish the season on a positive note. That was, until Thomas Chabot fractured his hand in the second period of a 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets last Wednesday. He is out for the rest of the 2021-22 season.
Regardless of the COVID-19 related issues and the numerous injuries this year, the Senators need to find a way to end this season with some momentum. Without Chabot, there’s a huge hole on the back end, but with injury comes opportunity. Let’s take a look at how the injury will impact the team this season and how they could find a way to win some games without him.
Who Will Step Up Without Chabot
The biggest question for the team is how they might cover for the ample void in time on ice in Chabot’s absence. With Chabot’s 26:23 per night up for grabs, it will be interesting to see how head coach D.J. Smith spreads the load.
Surely, the load will be taken on by committee, as there isn’t a player in the Senators’ locker room who can play effectively for 26 minutes. Judging by their 3-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday, Artyom Zub seems like the front-runner to see an increased workload. He has averaged 21:37 time on ice (ATOI) this season, and has hit the 27-minute mark three times. Erik Brännström has been solid since his return to the team and is an obvious candidate to fill in on the first power-play unit as well.
If Smith leans on his veterans more, like he did in the 5-1 loss to Montreal on Saturday, Nick Holden seems like the best option on the left side. He wears a letter for the Senators and plays with consistency. The downside to his game is the lack of offense, but he is more well-rounded than a lot of the other options, including Brännström.
Regardless of ice time, the bigger hole on defense is Chabot’s impressive all-around game. He can skate, defend, and create chances with his exceptional vision. The proof is in the numbers. Over the last three seasons, the Senators sport a -74 goal differential at five-on-five, while Chabot is only a minus-4 at five-on-five during that span. The Senators are essentially bottom feeders without him on the ice, while he gives them a fighting chance when he’s out there.
The Senators are going to have to change that narrative going forward if they want to finish the season strong. Team defense will be the key, as will goaltending. With Anton Forsberg on a heater, goaltending shouldn’t be an issue. But the rest of the team will have to step up to keep the wins coming.
Chabot’s Leadership Void
Leading up to this season, there were some questions about the Senators’ vacant captaincy. With Brady Tkachuk headed to a contract dispute and Chabot already locked up long-term, there was a chance that Chabot would be named team captain.
That all ended on opening night, when Tkachuk was named captain after signing a deal to stay in Ottawa. But there’s no question that Chabot is one of the team’s leaders and is a big part of the team’s locker room culture.
This season, even though the Senators haven’t been close enough to push for a playoff spot, Chabot has been working tirelessly and relentlessly every time he steps on the ice. He is the type of player that gives it his all, and teammates notice that. He sets an example for the younger players in the lineup, like call-ups Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker.
When ‘Chabby’ went out it was a huge hit to us. I could just feel it on the bench emotionally. He does so many things. The word got out in the room after [the second period] that Chabby wouldn’t be returning and what the injury was.Senators’ Head Coach D.J. Smith
When he’s out of the lineup, the team might get deflated more easily. They might get in a funk if they surrender a couple of early goals. Look for supplementary leaders like Connor Brown and Drake Batherson (when he returns) to bring some passion and will the team to win.
How it Will Shape Pierre Dorion’s Trade Deadline Plans
Surely, the Senators will look to make a few moves before the trade deadline on Monday. Reports suggest that Nick Paul is available due to the Senators’ inability to meet him at the $3 million AAV he sought. Other available players could include Chris Tierney, Michael Del Zotto, and Anton Forsberg.
But now with Chabot out long-term, general manager Pierre Dorion may choose to hold on to some of the players who were likely to move. The Senators were already shallow on defense, and now they are even shallower. Dorion might have been interested in moving someone like Nikita Zaitsev, whose contract has been handcuffing the team for years, or giving Victor Mete a fresh start somewhere else. But without many players to step up into their roles, it will be tough for him to deplete the depth chart further.
Chabot’s injury could also spark more moves than Dorion had originally planned. Although the Senators don’t have much depth on defense, they have the two youngsters in Thomson and Bernard-Docker waiting in the minors. Although they are fine to stay there for the rest of the season, trading away a couple other defensemen could give them an extended opportunity with the big club. It seems more reasonable to play one of them in the bottom pairing than trot Josh Brown out there for 15 minutes a night.
In addition, this could be a golden opportunity to find Chabot a reliable, consistent defense partner. Artyom Zub has been solid, but he may not be good enough to skate on the top pairing of a Cup contender. He is much better suited to sit on the second pair. Dorion could reasonably package someone like Anton Forsberg and a first-round pick for a more reliable, top-pairing defenseman.
Who Will Establish Themselves for Next Season
With Victor Mete and Josh Brown on expiring contracts, Chabot’s injury presents a golden opportunity for some of Ottawa’s younger players. There will be some open roster spots on defense next season, and there’s no better time than now to establish the high ground.
The most obvious candidate to step up and secure a top-four role for next season is Brännström. The formerly highly-touted prospect turned project has been good but not amazing since his return to the NHL. He’s supposed to be known for his offensive prowess, but he’s only mustered six points in 33 games this season. If he has any hope of securing more minutes next season, he has to take advantage of his power-play time this season.
Other players who could secure more time next season are Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker. They are both playing well in the AHL, with Thomson producing 19 points in 29 games. Bernard-Docker, a stay-at-home defenseman, has put up six points in 38 games. They have both had call-ups to the NHL this season, and Thomson was given a shot on a pairing with Chabot for a couple games. Due to the tight playoff race that the Belleville Senators are in at the moment, they might choose to keep the two young defensemen in the minors. However, if one or both of them gets called up, they should look to secure a bottom-pairing role for next year.
With those two possibly staying in the minors for the rest of the season, the most intriguing player that will be in the lineup soon is former fifth-overall pick Jake Sanderson. Son of former NHLer Geoff Sanderson, the sturdy defenseman has been lighting it up in the NCAA this season with 26 points in 23 games. Pierre Dorion has already stated that Sanderson will join the Senators when his college season ends. With ample experience, including the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, Sanderson is a top-paring candidate, especially during Chabot’s absence. He’s currently injuried, but if he has a strong finish to the season, he will be a lock for the second pairing next season, and will surely take some of the offensive load off of Chabot.
With plenty of questions looming, the loss of Chabot compounds the trade deadline and the rest of the season for the Senators. The chance to step up for more minutes and leadership opportunities should be enough to find out what the Senators are made of and what we can expect from them in 2022-23.
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Writer and hockey addict from the GTA, covering the Ottawa Senators. Leafs fan from birth, moved to BC to explore the mountains and find the strength to keep cheering. Love talking prospects, potential, and coaching strategies.