If you ask any Ottawa Senators fan what their biggest weakness is, 99% of them will the say the depth on the blueline. It's been an issue for years now, and it doesn't seem to be getting much better. The good news is that Bryan Murray and the front office seems to finally realize they need a change.
Chris Wideman was a good addition to remedy this, but Jared Cowen and Mark Borowiecki are still getting regular minutes. Plus even when Cody Ceci was healthy, he was unable to take a leap forward like everyone was expecting. So the internal options have not been great. Since the Senators are a tight budget team, not many people are expecting a large trade addition or a free agent signing.
Because of that, it seems that the only hope Ottawa has of getting a better defense corps is through a handful of prospects. One guy who we have a lot of hopes pinned on then is 2015 1st round pick Thomas Chabot. Ever since Chabot was drafted, his stock has seemingly gone up and up. Even though he had a solid draft year, there were some who thought he was drafted a bit high at #18.
However, I don't think there is a single Senators fan now that isn't uber excited to see what Chabot can be in the NHL. He has racked up 20 points in 22 games with Saint John in the QMJHL, and is now playing first pairing minutes on Team Canada at the World Juniors with Joe Hicketts. He has received lots of praise this season, including from Corey Pronman of ESPN:
Lot of easy zone entries tonight for 1st rd pick Chabot-OTT. Skating is fantastic for a big man.— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) October 3, 2015
Thought Chabot-OTT wouldn't make the WJC roster, but Dunn/Walman injuries gave him a good opportunity. Overall impressive season to date.— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) December 16, 2015
He has looked solid early on in the World Juniors, and if he keeps his performance up until the end of the year, he'll be on many top prospect lists around the league.
The common theme with analysis about him is that he's a big body, but he can really skate. And it isn't that he skates well considering his size. He's a legitimately good skater that has some speed in comparison with all other players. He has some real offensive upside, which is what Ottawa needs. They need another defenseman who can break out of the zone and make some great passes, which is exactly what Chabot can bring. Even the fans notice this:
Chabot already has made more quality outlet passes than Cowen has all year.— Roman (@BadNewsJays) December 26, 2015
So why am I talking him up so much? Because he may be an integral part of the Senators team next year. As it stands, if Murray does not acquire a top-four defenseman via trade or free agency by next October, then Chabot is the only defenseman in the system that can legitimately play on the second pairing. So if the team wants to improve on the backend, it may come down to how well Chabot transitions to the NHL.
Even this season, he stayed in camp particularly long, meaning that the team thinks very highly of him. At this point, I'd be surprised if he didn't make the NHL roster. It gets more complicated when we have to think about who would be off the team, but the team can cross that bridge when they get there.
There are a few defensemen that could be available on the trade market, and there are a few that would help in free agency as well. However, I am going to assume the worst, meaning Ottawa fails to acquire anyone. In that case, let's go through Ottawa's defense. The first pairing will be Marc Methot and Erik Karlsson of course. After that there is a a lot of uncertainty after that. The left-handed defense include Patrick Wiercioch, Mark Borowiecki, Jared Cowen and Chabot.
The only right-handed defensemen are Cody Ceci and Chris Wideman, and I am assuming that Chris Phillips will be retired. Fredrik Claesson is another option as a lefty, but at this point I don't think he'll ever get a full-time shot with the Senators. So if Chabot makes the team, that gives Ottawa 8 defensemen, and one of them will be gone. I think either Cowen or Wiercioch will be gone, although I still think it would be a massive mistake to let Wiercioch go.
If Ottawa wants to get better, then Cowen or Borowiecki surely will not be on the second pairing on the left side. That means it's either Wiercioch or Chabot. So if the team thinks Wiercioch is expendable (which he is not), then Chabot will essentially be given the second pairing spot along with Ceci or Wideman. Even if Wiercioch is still with the team, Chabot should be on the third pairing with Ceci or Wideman as well (with Borowiecki as the 7th defenseman).
No matter how you plan things out, Chabot has a real good chance of making the team next year. And if he's in the NHL, Ottawa will be banking on his production to stabilize the blueline. If he becomes as good as people think he can be, then Ottawa is one step closer to being a contender. Next year he'll still be very young at 19, so we cannot expect too much from him like people did with Ceci, but there's a possibility that he makes the team much better. With him in the lineup, the defense looks much more palatable:
One other responsible defenseman would be preferable for me, but with those 6 on the backend I would be much more confident in their ability than I am with the team right now. Of course my confidence lies in Chabot's ability to play well in the NHL, which I assume he can do. At the same time, he may not be amazing right away. But even competence would be acceptable at this point.
The team and fans alike are rooting hard for Chabot to become a top-four defenseman for the Senators, and he'll be extremely important next year. Never has Ottawa needed a prospect to pan out so badly that I can remember. We should pay close attention to him.