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Five Thoughts: Brännström earning the coach’s trust, Chabot’s excellence & more

Plus, thoughts on Formenton’s long-term role with the team and the upcoming PWHPA showcase!

Minnesota Wild v Ottawa Senators Photo by Chris Tanouye/NHLI via Getty Images

Three days without Sens games feels kind of weird after that ridiculous stretch, doesn’t it?

Here are some thoughts. Five of them.

Development Mode

I’d like to draw attention to something D.J. Smith said before Saturday’s game against the Boston Bruins. Ian Mendes asked the coach if he had a conversation with Erik Brännström about the three penalties the young defenseman had taken in the previous game. D.J. had this to say:

Brännström then played over 27 minutes in that game - a career high.

A lot of fans saw this as a huge change of heart from D.J., but I actually think this is pretty in character for him. One thing I’ve noticed about this coach from listening to him speak to the media is that his focus is always on individual player development rather than what’s going to help him win games immediately.

Lassi Thomson needs to go to Belleville because we don’t want to ruin his confidence by keeping him here.

Egor Sokolov needs to stay in Belleville because we want him thriving in the AHL.

We don’t want to match Tim Stützle against top lines right now because that would be bad for his confidence.

Alex Formenton isn’t on the powerplay because we want him to get more reps at 5 on 5 and on the penalty kill.

Brännström needs to play big minutes so that he can learn to play in the NHL.

Listening to him speak, I don’t get the impression that D.J. Smith genuinely thinks that Chris Tierney is a better powerplay option than Alex Formenton, or that the team is better off with Josh Brown and Nikita Zaitsev in the lineup than Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker. With D.J. Smith, It’s rarely about whether or not the player can help the team right now. It’s always about whether or not the player is playing at the level that D.J. Smith expects from him. And to his credit, he’s gotten results in terms of player development. Tkachuk, Norris, Batherson, Formenton, Stützle, Thomson, JBD, Brännström and others have all developed really well in the NHL.

This coach has proven himself capable of getting the most out of his young players. His focus on player development is, I think, exactly what the team has needed during these rebuild years. But his track record in games that matter - meaning, the first few games of this season and last - is pretty horrendous. Next season, this team needs to start winning. They’ll have to do it with a young roster - with some players who have clearly won the coach’s trust, and some who have not. That, I think, will be the real test for D.J. Smith.

Formenton’s role

Buckle up, folks, because it’s going to be non-stop contract talk from here all through the summer — and maybe into the fall if Josh Norris takes after his best friend (please no. I can’t do that again).

Unsurprisingly, UFA Nick Paul and RFA Josh Norris have drawn the most attention, with good reason, but at what point do we start talking about Alex Formenton, who will be an RFA this summer as well?

Formenton has blossomed into a great all-situations player. He’s a menace on a penalty kill and really any time he’s on the ice. He’s played well in the third and fourth lines, and looked great next to Tim Stützle on the second line - good enough that he’s starting to look like a real top-six option in the long term.

I still think I’d like him best as a third liner who can move up the lineup if necessary - which is why I think the Sens should go after top-six wingers right now, so guys like Formenton and Brown can move down the depth chart. I’d love it if the Sens could lock him up long term in the $2-3M range, but who knows what their plan is? I’m certainly very curious to see what happens during the offseason.

Chabot is so special

A regular season game against the Minnesota Wild has no right to feel as special as Tuesday’s game did.

And yet, it almost felt like a tribute to Thomas Chabot, a night for appreciating everything the veteran defenseman has done and continues to do for the Ottawa Senators. Coming off an injury that kept him out of the lineup for three games, Chabot was suiting up for his 300th NHL game. The pre-game interviews with Chabot and with coach D.J. Smith were really good, as both reflected on Chabot’s career and his importance to this team.

And then there was the game itself, where he scored two goals including the game winner and assisted on a third. You couldn’t have scripted it better, except perhaps to give him a hat trick.

For all the recognition that Chabot does get, it still feels like we don’t appreciate him enough considering everything he has quietly done for this team and this franchise.

Chabot broke into the league right when things started to go really badly in Ottawa. In just his second season, he was asked to fill the massive hole left in the lineup by Erik Karlsson’s departure. I think we were all so used to Karlsson at that point that the things Chabot was doing seemed normal - and a lot of us were disappointed when he couldn’t do all the things Karlsson did, which was never fair to him.

This season, it’s become especially evident that he’s an important leader in the dressing room. He’s been mentoring every young defensive prospect that’s come up from Belleville, from Erik Brännström to Lassi Thomson to Jacob Bernard-Docker, and you can bet Jake Sanderson will join that club as well. I frequently joke on Twitter about Chabot being the “team dad,” but that’s really how it feels when he talks about the young players he’s mentoring. A year from now, we could have a defensive lineup that’s just Chabot, Zub, and four players that Chabot mentored.

We’re very lucky to have Chabot here, and I hope he gets to see this team achieve real success soon.

Good vibes only

For a bad team, the Sens are really fun to watch, aren’t they?

I don’t really have much more to say about this. I just think it’s great that every picture from sens practice features a whole bunch of players hugging each other, and that they all genuinely seem to like each other off the ice. We don’t have many reasons to root for wins this year, except perhaps for the joy of watching a tiny clip of a postgame celebration, in which one of our favourite players puts on a bike helmet and sunglasses as ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” plays in the background.

I’m glad that they’re finding ways to enjoy the season. And I have to say that every one of those videos makes me more excited to watch this team play meaningful games. This a team I’d love to follow through a deep playoff run.

The Dream Gap Tour comes to Ottawa!

One of my biggest pet peeves about the way women’s hockey is talked about in the hockey world (and believe me, there are a lot of them) is how it’s always framed as some kind of charitable endeavor.

“Support women in sports by watching this event!”

“Attend this game because female athletes deserve to have people watch their games!”

“Tune in to prove that people like watching women’s hockey!”

“We need to put women’s sports on TV so little girls can see that they can play hockey too!”

Look. There is a place for all these statements - especially when we’re talking about a PWHPA event - and if wanting to support women in sports is your reason for watching women’s hockey, then more power to you. But I don’t watch women’s hockey for any of these reasons. I watch women’s hockey because it’s fun.

Why should you attend the PWHPA showcase in Nepean this weekend? Because it’s fun hockey. I don’t believe any of the 2022 Olympians will be playing in this tournament so soon after flying home, but if you look up the rosters, you’ll surely recognize plenty of names from past Olympic years.

If you enjoyed the Olympic tournament and want to see more of the best women’s hockey players in the world, get your tickets to the PWHPA showcase.