No. 1: Thomas Chabot (Reader rank: 1, Last Year: 1)
Thomas Chabot reigns supreme yet again in our Top 25 Under 25 series, though this year it was much closer than it has been in the past. We will reveal the voting totals tomorrow as part of our series recap, but Chabot was faced with a real challenge from both Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stuetzle this time around. Part of that is because Stuetzle is the most exciting prospect the Sens have had in forever, and part of it is because Tkachuk was fantastic last year, but part of it also is because there’s a perception that Chabot took something of a step back this past season. Remember, the young rearguard spent a large chunk of 2018-19 leading the league in scoring for defensemen and finished with a tidy 55 points in 70 games played. Chabot was just 22 when that season finished, the clear best defenseman on his team, an NHL all-star, and would you just look at all those points? So when we look back on the 2019-20 season and see that Chabot notched a meagre 39 points in 71 games we’re left to wonder what happened: was Chabot really that much worse?
The answer to this question has two parts. The first is that the Sens as a team scored at a much lesser rate last season than they did in 2018-19, 2.68 goals per game vs. 2.95 to be exact. That’s the difference between 17th and 25th in the league, or a mediocre offensive team and a bad one. Chabot’s 39 points meant he was in on 20.5% of the team’s 190 goals last season; actually a very slight uptick from the 19.5% rate that his 55 points got him for the 282 goals the year prior. The second part of the answer to this question is that Chabot got a lot fewer secondary assists, only 16 in all situations vs. 29 the year before. Not all assists are created equally, and secondary assists in particular tend to bounce around a lot from year-to-year. Would it have been preferable that Chabot maintained his scoring totals? Of course, but if you scratch beneath the surface a bit there’s ample evidence that the downturn in his scoring stats was more bad luck and circumstances than a regression. Certainly the Sens operated at a high level offensively when he was on the ice:
As I wrote in last year’s piece crowning him the king of the Top 25 Under 25, the concern with Chabot, however, has always been his defense — not his offense:
I wouldn’t go so far as to say Chabot is a totally finished product offensively, but he’s as close to elite as you’ll find in a 22 year-old entering his third season in the league.
It’s on the defensive side of things that Chabot still has some work to do, and how much he improves in the next couple of seasons will likely determine whether he lands as a good first pairing defenseman or as the successor to Erik Karlsson and a perennial Norris-contender. To my eye he’s a sound one-on-one defender who uses his skating and positions his body well to shut down opposing rushes. He’s strong on the puck in the corners and he makes effective use of his puck skills to quickly transition from defense to offense; an underrated part of defensive play in today’s NHL. He does, however, tend to get lost when he’s away from the puck and the Sens still give up tonnes of shots when he’s on the ice. To some degree that’s a by-product of being on a bad team; everyone gives up lots of shots. Still, the numbers last season weren’t flattering
Did Chabot make strides in his defensive play last season after that write-up? Defense is one of the hardest things to quantify in hockey, and some of the traditional measures would suggest not much changed: Chabot was -18 for the year, and the Sens were not exactly defensive juggernauts when he was on the ice.
That being said, the defensive shot and chance measures were meaningfully improved. Compare the defensive charts for the last two seasons, 2018-19 on the left and 2019-20 on the right(all heat map images courtesy of Micah McCurdy at hockeyviz.com):
The difference is someone getting bad results defensively vs. getting okay results. A lot of the same comments that I made last year still apply: Chabot is a good-to-great one-on-one defender but he does struggle with some of his reads. His understanding of how to defend NHLers is improving, though, and with his physical abilities I see no reason that he can’t make himself into a good defender. I doubt that he will ever be a great defender, but given his superlative offensive talents being just good would be more than enough. Already, even as a mediocre defender he dragged the Sens to the positive side of the ledger in both shots and chances; last year, Tkachuk was the only other Senator who played meaningful minutes who could make the same claim. They were by far and away the two biggest positive contributors to the team.
Some of the calls for Chabot to be in the conversation for the Norris two seasons ago were a bit premature, but they were also a reflection of how so much of the evaluation of defensemen is done on the basis of points. Chabot took a bit of a step back when it came to the counting stats last season, but he was improved in the area in which he needed the most growth: his defensive game. He’s established himself as a very good first-pairing defenseman who can eat up 25+ a night against any competition, and that makes him fantastically valuable. Chabot will be 24 when this next season starts, so he’s young enough that there might yet be some room for improvement but he might also be pretty closed to a finished product. Is this the year he takes the step to elite status? Given what’s come before, I wouldn’t discount the possibility that Chabot finds himself in the running for a Norris trophy in the not-too-distant future but what he is today is already good enough to be the four-time winner of our Top 25 Under 25 series.
Hail to the King, baby.