There’s always a whipping boy among Ottawa Senators players, and for some reason, it’s generally a defenceman. We can think back on previous seasons when guys like Jared Cowen and Cody Ceci got a huge portion of the blame. In recent years, that transferred to primarily Nikita Zaitsev. But this year, somehow a lot of that blame has gone to Thomas Chabot. This is shocking to me, since unlike those other players, Chabot has actually been really good in a Sens uniform. This year is no exception. Yes, he does have blunders that show up on the highlight reel, but beware of confirmation bias. The problem as humans is that we can’t hold vast amounts of information in our brains at any given point, so we tend to remember individual events. If a player makes a dozen great plays and one egregious error, we’re more likely to remember the error. And confirmation bias heightens this, that once we’re looking for mistakes from an individual, we see them regularly. So, for example, we hyper-fixate on Chabot going down for a 2-on-1 and sliding out of position when it leads to the OT winner. We forget his good plays during the game, as well as the context that he was 49 seconds into a shift, and had only sat for 57 seconds of the 2:52 of OT. I want to look a little more at how he’s been playing this year.
The easiest place to start is by looking at how Chabot stacks up when looking at stats that have been in use forever. Chabot is tied for 26th in points among defencemen, including being 19th among defencemen in goals. That’s solidly top-pairing scoring in a 32-team league. He quarterbacks the league’s 4th-best powerplay (25.7%), and has been on the ice for 65% of the Sens’ powerplay goals. In fact, he’s been on the ice for 55% of the Sens’ total goals while playing about 40% of their total minutes. His -11 is glaring, but is hurt by the fact that he’s been on the ice for five shorthanded goals against, which can’t be offset by powerplay goals. The Sens are actually -26 this season at 5v5, so it’s not bad that he’s -6 in that span considering he plays more than a third of the team’s even-strength minutes. In terms of scoring and pushing play in the right direction, he’s been decidedly in the top of the league while again being fourth in the league in time-on-ice per game.
When looking at the share of 5v5 shot attempts (Corsi), Chabot comes out ahead with 50.42% (all stats here via NaturalStatTrick.com). When you start looking at his partners, he seems to be the one driving those pairings. He and Zub have an underwhelming 49.67% together, which goes up to 53.18% when Chabot is away from Zub, while Zub drops to 42.93% when away from Chabot. Even more staggering is his results with Zaitsev: they are a paltry 46.35% together, while Chabot is 52.72% away from Zaitsev, and Zaitsev is 42.92% away from Chabot. His next-most common partner is Jacob Bernard-Docker, where it bears out again: 45.02% together, 55.41% when Chabot is freed, 38.89% when Bernard-Docker is separated. So in more than three-quarters of his 5v5 minutes, he’s boosting his partner 7 to 17%. The question then is how he manages to break even overall given the bulk of his minutes aren’t great, and the answer is that he’s been very good with Brännström (60.35%) and Sanderson (52.00%), and even Hamonic (57.93%) and Holden (51.69%). When we move from shot attempts to expected goals-for, Chabot jumps up to 51.32%. Where Chabot really brings his value is on offence, which you can put together from these couple charts (via JFresh and then The Athletic):
Basically, Chabot is elite in everything offensive, but at least this season has struggled on the defensive end (though how much of that has to do with partners?). So, if you accept that his job is to drive offence, he’s still super valuable. Keep in mind that the second chart above does nothing to take into account his value on the powerplay. Not to mention, if you look through the previous years, you can see that this season isn’t an outlier. He’s always been top-notch offensively, while at best average defensively. His benefit is in helping you spend as little time as possible in your own zone.
And where Chabot’s been most hurt? I’d argue that the goalies’ combined .8984 save percentage at 5v5 has made him look way worse than he should be. The only defenceman who’s played 30 min and had a worse 5v5 sv% on the team is Brännström (0.8979). Either you think that Chabot gives up far more egregious offensive chances than Zaitsev, Hamonic, Holden, and Larsson, or you realize he’s been let down by his goalies this year.
The thing is, watching Chabot with the puck, you can see where his value lies. He’s such a confident, smooth skater, with great hand-eye, great puck control, and great passing. At the risk of doing my own confirmation bias, here’s some recent plays that stood out to me:
This is some "Vintage" Thomas Chabot. We need more of this.— Pesky Sickos (@PeskySickos) February 20, 2023
He's always been great at using his skating to gain open space and create plays to draw in defenders, opening his teammates.
Does a great job here but doesn't convert this time. #Sens #GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/pWh8YSPeWM
You’re not going to convince me that Chabot’s lost a step this year when he’s regularly doing stuff like that. It’s just that if a goal isn’t scored, we rarely remember the plays.
I think Chabot is suffering from what I call “Spezza syndrome”. Sens fans spent years with Jason Spezza as one of the best centres in the world. That meant once he left, our standards were that a 1C had to be scoring 80 points a year. A guy like Kyle Turris was in the top-30 in scoring for centres, and Sens fans would be whining the he was a Line 2-or-3 tweener. We’ve been spoiled the Same way with Erik Karlsson. We saw an elite, top-of-the-league defensive talent, and expect that as the standard. Thomas Chabot isn’t a generational talent, but that’s OK. He’s not being paid $11.5M a year. He’s indisputably an offensive wizard, and has possibly been shaky defensively, but has also been asked to carry some disappointing partners and has dealt with not-great goaltending. He’s had a few glaring mistakes, but that’s far from being washed, being the biggest problem with the team, or anything like that. This team still needs at least one more top-four defenceman to compete, and when that happens, I imagine the discourse will be, “Wow, Chabot looks like his old self!” without anything changing stats-wise.