The Ottawa Senators were a bad defensive squad in 2019-20, this is a known fact. The team finished second-to-last in goals against per game, and only the positively dreadful Detroit Red Wings were worse; this despite the fact that it is generally acknowledged the team bought into new coach DJ Smith’s system and were committed to playing a defensively sound game. Part of the reason they allowed a painful 3.35 goals a game was goaltending. Craig Anderson and Marcus Hogberg posted .902 and .904 all-situations SV%, respectively. By the advanced metrics both Anderson and Hogberg grade out as net negatives, though Hogberg a bit less so. Nonetheless, the principal reason that the Sens gave up so many goals is that they were quit bad defensively: third last in shots against, fourth last in PK%, and just as bad in the advanced metrics.
It is premature to make definitive judgments about Smith one way or another; I’m much more inclined to place the failures (and the successes) on the personnel. If the team unsurprisingly struggled defensively this year, it’s because the players were over-matched. So naturally, when attempting to suss which individual had the greatest impact on the work of the whole we start with the player who saw by far the most ice-time this past season: Thomas Chabot.
Chabot is known as one of the team’s offensive stars, and with good cause. A brief reminder of his highlights from 2019-20, a campaign that saw him net 39 points in 71 games:
It is also accepted wisdom that Chabot needs to work on his defensive game, and that the team (and the player) might better reach its potential if the young rearguard was assigned a defensive-minded partner. But of all the encouraging things to happen this past season, one of the most overlooked was Chabot’s progress on defense. If it was fair to wonder about his defensive chops when he first cracked the line-up full-time as a 20 year-old, his performance this past season makes that critique seem less and less relevant. This is not to say that Chabot’s defensive game couldn’t use improvement, but it’s gone from a weakness to neutral at worst. Ottawa struggled to keep the puck out of their own net for a variety of reasons last season, but Chabot’s defense is not even close to the top of the list of reasons why.
There are two primary criticisms of Chabot’s defensive game: the first is that he has a tendency to get beaten quite a bit, or “walked” in the parlance of the game, and that as a result he has a front row seat to a fair amount of grade A chances against. A related complaint is that he pinches too aggressively, and will roam around in the offensive zone in search of offense and forsaking sound defensive positioning.
The second criticism flows from the first: how can a good defensive player be -18? Chabot has, in fact, been a minus player every year of his career. I don’t think it’s worth addressing this second criticism because plus/minus is one of my least favourite stats, and I reckon it has done much more harm than good to hockey analysis over the years. This four year-old piece from Hockey Graphs makes the case far more comprehensively than I can here without having this article devolve into a 3,000 word mess. More importantly, however, is that even if you do believe in plus/minus then you would concede that Chabot’s bad rating is a result of his supposedly bad defensive play. If we are going to assess Chabot’s defensive game we should be more interested in the “how”.
In some ways, the debate about Chabot’s defensive game reminds me of the days when Erik Karlsson first joined the Sens. Both were highly-touted, offensive dynamos who cracked the NHL roster at a young age. Like Chabot, Karlsson did in fact struggle defensively his first few seasons in the NHL. For those of us who have been frequenting hockey message boards for the 11 (!!) years that Karlsson has been in the league, the complaints about defensive awareness and roaming are familiar. Eventually, it became generally accepted that Karlsson was helping more than he was hurting defensively. Even his staunchest defenders would admit that he wasn’t a star in his own end, but first impressions are hard to shake and Karlsson’s detractors held his supposed failings against him far longer than was warranted. By the time Karlsson was traded to the Sharks, it was clear that the Sens teams that he was on struggled defensively not because of Karlsson but because of what was happening when he wasn’t on the ice. The same is true of Chabot.
The other way that the criticism of Chabot’s defensive game reminds me of the old Karlsson days, is that the two play defense in a similar fashion. Both employ tactics that can sometimes infuriate fans who would advocate for a more conservative approach to defending. Like his predecessor, Chabot is a superlatively good skater and he uses this to his advantage to maintain a tight gap with attacking forwards. Only Mark Borowiecki plays opponents as closely through the neutral zone, albeit for different reasons. By keeping his opponents so close, Chabot gives himself the chance to create turnovers and re-start the offense. There is no better outcome for a defensive team than a turnover followed by a quick break-out pass. Chabot is by far the best defender on the Sens at this. He has good anticipation and is confident in open ice. He also forces a lot of dump-ins this way.
The downside of this style is that Chabot does, on occasion, get beaten by a particularly skilled moved and yeah — sometimes it looks a bit embarrassing. For all of his improved defensive prowess, Karlsson used to (and sometimes still does) suffer from the same fate. Those moments, especially if they result in goals, stand out in our minds. And this is at the core of why I think any harsh criticism of Chabot is unjustified: the good outweighs the bad, but our lizard brains make it hard to avoid focusing on the glaring mistakes. Will you remember ten poke checks in the neutral zone, or five pucks stolen on the cycle for the one time Chabot gets blown by? How will you weigh these things against each other? The truth is that it’s hard, and that’s why it’s important to step back and take a look at his body of work as a whole and not a series of discrete events. It is possible to be a good, even great, defender and still get blown by on occasion.
To get past our first impressions and gut feelings, we need something tangible and the numbers support the case that Chabot’s defensive game has improved. By any shots or chance-related measure you can choose, the Sens fared better defensively when Chabot was on the ice than when he was off of it. This is a change from his first two years when the Sens were giving up more chances, and goals, when he was on the ice. If you look at his isolated impact for this year courtesy of friend of the blog Micah McCurdy’s hockeyviz.com, you see a player making a hugely positive impact on the offensive end and a neutral impact on the defensive end.
In his first two years in the league, Chabot’s defensive impact was +4.2 and +6.8% (negative is better for defensive impact) by the HockeyViz measure. When he was asked to take on a heavy load this season, it was generally understood that it might come at the expense of his overall efficiency. That certainly does not appear to have been the case, at least defensively. In fact, the opposite: Chabot’s improved defensive plays is one of the most positive stories this season that’s largely gone unreported on. It was Chabot’s scoring stats that took a downwards turn this year and that’s arguably much more to do with the weak roster surrounding him than anything else.
It’s only been the one season, so perhaps we should be cautious in our optimism, but I see no reason Chabot can’t maintain at least this level of defensive play. If you’ve been of the opinion in the past that he needed to improve his defensive work, I’d suggest it might be time to reevaluate. Look for all of the plays he breaks up with his skating, look for all of the times he jump-starts the offense after doing so and try not to put quite so much emphasis on the glaring occasions that he might get caught out. When you play as much as Chabot does, you’re eventually going to get egg on your face. It is time to re-visit some opinions, because Chabot has done enough this season to shed the first impressions.