No. 1: Thomas Chabot (Reader rank: 2, Last Year: 5)
Thomas Chabot gets the number one spot on our rankings because he has what the other players on this list do not have: star potential. You have to go all the way back to Erik Karlsson to be reminded of a prospect who had top-line or top-pair potential before making the NHL (sorry, Mika Zibanejad), and it’s something the Senators desperately need.
Recently promoted Chief Amateur Scout, Trent Mann, is hoping that Chabot turns into his ‘Erik Karlsson pick’. Based in the QMJHL, Mann saw three QMJHL players taken in the 2015 draft (Chabot, Chlapik, Gagne) and has to be thrilled with Chabot’s development. Here’s then-AGM Pierre Dorion’s comments on Chabot after he was drafted 18th overall:
ASSISTANT GM PIERRE DORION SAYS: "He's an excellent skater, a very good puck mover and I think the way the game is headed with more transitional puck-moving defencemen, Thomas fits that bill. He makes good, smart passes, defends well with his stick and uses his feet to defend. To us, he's a guy that's going to be a top-four defenceman in the future."
Remember, Chabot wasn’t even the top blueliner on his team drafted that year — most prospect analysts had Boston’s Jakub Zboril taken higher, and he was, at 13th overall. However, it’s safe to say that Chabot has capitalized on his strengths, improved on his weaknesses, and thus, increased his potential ceiling. This year, Chabot was named the (take a big breath): CHL defenseman of the year, QMJHL Defenseman of the Year, and QMJHL Playoffs MVP; he was also named the Best Defenseman and Most Valuable Player at the U20 World Junior Championships after putting up 10 points on Canada’s silver medal winning squad. Basically: every individual trophy he could have won, he won, and his teams (Saint John and Canada) both went the distance — Saint John won the QMJHL and went to the Memorial Cup, while Canada made it to the U20 finals. Yes, Chabot played on fantastic teams; but he starred on those teams and was one of the primary reasons why they had the success that they did. The Sens have had a fair amount of prospects have league or international success, but rarely have they been one of the drivers; Chabot was the dude in the Porsche.
These accolades have helped Chabot climb the list of league-wide prospect prognosticators. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman has him as the 11th best prospect in the league, second among defenders after Charlie McAvoy, who had an extended NHL playoff stint and is a year younger than Chabot; no one mention that the Senators could’ve had both but drafted...Logan Brown. Moreover, TSN’s Craig Button has Chabot third on their list of ‘best players not playing in the NHL’, and Brad Phillips of Dobber Hockey says ‘the sky is the limit’.
Now, the big question: should Chabot be in the NHL this season? There are many ways to approach this question; I’ll outline the two most common philosophies below.
1. Make your NHL roster your 22 (or 23) best players, period.
With the D corps on the left-side looking like Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Claesson, Johnny Oduya, Mark Borowiecki, Ben Harpur, Andreas Englund after Marc Methot’s departure to Dallas, you can safely slot Chabot in at the top of the list. Even if you give Phaneuf a pass because of age and NHL experience, (my beloved) Claesson just came on this past season after 3+ years of development and has 49 NHL games to his belt. Oduya was signed to a $1M (w/ bonuses) deal in the offseason, but likely isn’t a T4 player anymore; ditto with Borowiecki, Harpur, and Englund. The Senators have depth on defence, but looking at current performance and the prospects in the system, you can really only count Erik Karlsson, Cody Ceci, and Dion Phaneuf as top-four players — and the latter two are debatable!
Even when Guy Boucher was brand new last season, Chabot was still considered one of the team’s seven best defencemen out of training camp after a 0.95 PPG QMJHL year (1.25 in the playoffs). This year, in addition to the WJC performance, Chabot put up 1.32 PPG (1.28 in the playoffs) to lead all QMJHL defencemen in points-per-game. With Methot gone, and basically the same cast as last year, you can’t say that Chabot got worse, right?
2. Defencemen take longer to develop: there’s no harm in letting Chabot start the year in Belleville.
If I had to pick which option the Senators were leading towards, I’d pick this one. They brought in Chabot’s defence coach from Saint John, Paul Boutilier, to serve as an assistant in Belleville, and the number of one-way contracts at the NHL level with Oduya’s signing seems too high, regardless of low salary to have sitting on the bench or waived. Additionally, Pierre Dorion has noted time-and-time again how happy he is with his defence corps, citing depth and the ability to call on Chabot, Jaros, Englund as a strength.
The Senators have tried to bring their top defencemen into the NHL at a young age, and I’d say that their success rate is 33%. Erik Karlsson played his draft+1 year in Sweden before crossing the pond, suited up for 12 games in the AHL, and spent the rest of the year in the NHL as a 19-20 year old. Jared Cowen played his draft+1 and draft+2 years in the WHL, played 10 games in the AHL playoffs in his draft+2 year, and then made the Senators as a 20-21 year old. Finally, Cody Ceci played his draft+1 year in the OHL, and then split his draft+2 year between Ottawa (49 games) and Binghamton (27 games) as a 19-20 year old. Although the Senators may be happy with Ceci’s development, there’s a portion of the fanbase (myself included) that believes that Ceci could’ve used the full year in Binghamton. The opposing view would say that this was Ceci’s ceiling all along, and we shouldn’t let that warp our view of the (all things considered) better player qualitatively and quantitatively, Thomas Chabot.
An alternate way to answer this question is to look at defencemen who made the NHL as an U21 player — did they succeed? If so, are there certain elements of their situation that stand out? Using a 10 game cutoff due to its usefulness in determining whether a team thought the player was good enough to burn a year off their entry-level deal, I found 52 defencemen between the 2006-07 seasons to 2016-17 that played in the NHL in between the ages of 18 and 20.
Of note: almost every player on this list is a first round pick, like Chabot, and were trusted to be placed directly in a top-four role. The players who qualified from 2016-17: Aaron Ekblad (FLA), Noah Hanifin (CAR), Zach Werenski (CBJ), Ivan Provorov (PHI), Jakob Chychrun (ARZ), Gustav Forsling (CHI), and Nelson Nogier (WPG) — 6 of the 8 played prominent roles.
The lesson: there are around 6-8 elite talents every year who play defence as a U21 player in the National Hockey League. The ones who make it are the household names — first round picks — and they go on to play T4 roles on their team right away. This may be due to their teams having a spot open; only Werenski (CBJ) and Forsling (CHI) were in the playoffs last year, and many on the list played their initial seasons for non-playoff teams. But, it also means that the players had the trust of the coaching staff to play regularly and not get sheltered with <15 minutes a night on the third-pair.
These last two points don’t bode well for Chabot. Guy Boucher regularly talks about how the NHL isn’t a development league, and other than Ryan Dzingel and Cody Ceci, no young player or AHL call-up got a prominent role on the team. Additionally, if the Sens don’t see him alongside Erik Karlsson (like Werenski - Jones pairing in Columbus) or Cody Ceci (where they’ve been burned before trying young players with him), Chabot may be best served by getting top-pair minutes in Belleville until he’s trusted.
Do I think Chabot could play regular minutes in the NHL this season? His career accolades certainly put him into the conversation with many of the names on the list above. Although his NHL playing time is uncertain for this upcoming season, Chabot’s place on this list of Sens prospects under 25 isn’t: he’s here to stay — it’s just a matter of how good he’s going to be.
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