Many of his fans imagined Thomas Chabot developing into one of the best all-around defencemen in the game.
In the mould of a Victor Hedman, if not quite to that level or the Swede’s six-foot-six size and reach.
Perhaps Chabot was destined to become a Nick Lidstrom-lite.
Lidstrom, like Chabot, had an effortless manner about him when he patrolled the blueline for the Detroit Red Wings.
Unlike Chabot, whose defensive game still needs work, Lidstrom was almost the perfect defenceman — he could do anything and do it smoothly, as evidenced by his seven Norris Trophies as top NHL defenceman between 2001-2011.
Chabot may still become a Norris Trophy candidate — he is still just 24.
And yet, the latest development concerning Chabot’s deployment with the Ottawa Senators is intriguing, if not stunning. Rather than make the focus his defensive side, the area where he needs the most work, Chabot is being turned loose. With an eye locked toward the far zone, Chabot is being paired with Artem Zub, a 25-year-old Russian who emerged from the KHL last season to become the Senators’ most pleasant surprise, and arguably their top defender.
Along with the message to Chabot to pump up his offensive game — he was fifth in team scoring last season with six goals, 31 points in 49 games, comes an even more shocking arrangement: Michael Del Zotto and Nikita Zaitsev have been assigned the role of “shutdown pair.”
How long that lasts remains to be seen. The six-foot, 194-pound Del Zotto, 31, has been many things over his long NHL career — versatile, useful, a well-travelled journeyman (Ottawa is his 9th NHL stop). But a shutdown D is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind.
As Alex Metzger noted in a story for Last Word On Hockey, Del Zotto was ranked 161st (out of 175) in even strength defence for D-men who played at least 2000 minutes over the past three years. The eye test would confirm that Del Zotto has his defensive shortcomings.
And while Zaitsev is certainly willing and has carried a heavy defensive load since coming here from Toronto, he can have a terrible time getting the puck out of the zone.
Let’s see how this plays out. Head coach D.J. Smith knows he needs more goal-scoring, and he views a more rested Chabot bringing a high-octane, offensive thrust to the forwards, at even strength and on the power play.
“My plan is to have the Zaitsev, Del Zotto, Nick Holden and Josh Browns of the world take the majority of the defensive stuff,” Smith said, in the early days of training camp. “And have Chabby put in offensive situations more often. I think, unfairly to him, because he was our best player and our best all-around defenceman, he’s constantly challenged with playing against the other team’s best players and trying to provide offence. It’s not fair to him.”
In the view of Smith, and others in the organization, Chabot is getting worn down by trying to be Mr. Everything. His average ice time per game of 26:17 last season was second only to Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings.
While Chabot didn’t do a ton of penalty killing, he will presumably do even less. And will no longer match up against the opponents’ top line.
“I think this opportunity here is going to allow him to get a lot more offensive zone starts, a lot more time spent with the top six forwards, I would say,” Smith said. “And that really is his skill set. I mean, his defending is so much better than it was. He’s facing the puck, boxing out and all those things, and we know he can play against the best in the world but it helps us when he’s providing offence.”
Chabot, who never complained about his heavy load, seems quite agreeable to slightly less ice time while priming his offensive game, as Zub does the heavy lifting at the back end.
“I think Zuby is such a strong guy in his own zone, and obviously that is something I always try to bring in my game, but to have him being so solid defensively, so strong in battles and corners that I think that is definitely going to help us as a pairing,” Chabot says.
“You guys have seen him, just the way he’s able to skate and make passes and plays in the O-zone . . . to play with him, I think we can really feed off each other and get involved in the O-zone and make more plays. Really, just as a team to just hold onto the puck a bit longer in the offensive zone.”
While I understand the reasoning, part of me is wistful for the idea of Chabot as an ultimate, all-around defenceman. In time, I hope he gets that opportunity again.
If Chabot can pump up his offensive numbers, that will garner more attention around the league even if he is not on the ice in the final minute defending a one-goal lead.
Suffice to say, Ottawa’s defence will be a work in progress again this season.
In front of goaltender Matt Murray, looking to have a rebound season, Chabot and Zub will need time to develop chemistry. While Zub’s English is not great, Chabot says they communicate just fine using the language of hockey.
Exactly how newcomers Del Zotto and Nick Holden are used, could be very fluid.
Smith calls Holden, “a big, smart player who can do a bit of everything.”
Perhaps Holden, a steady presence on the left side, could move in alongside Zaitsev while Del Zotto drops back to join Victor Mete or Josh Brown in a third pairing. That adds up to 7D. (Sorry, all you Erik Brannstrom fans, but the tea leaves would suggest that barring an injury, the Branny train will check in at the Belleville station, with young Jacob Bernard-Docker riding shotgun with Brannstrom). Bernard-Docker will benefit from some AHL time while Brannstrom, 22, will again have to bide his time and hope for an opportunity. Brannstrom can move up and down without waivers. Mete requires waivers.
Pinto, Greig leave marks in Jets game
Pre-season hockey can be as deceiving as fool’s gold, but the Senators had lots to be excited about after their 3-2 overtime and shootout victory in Winnipeg Sunday. The shootout was pre-arranged, regardless of the outcome of the score in regulation. But just for fun, rookie centre Shane Pinto scored the overtime game-winner with a brilliant solo effort in the Jets’ zone, and then Brannstrom scored the shootout “winner.” Two victories in one night. Can’t beat that for fun.
Still playing on repeat pic.twitter.com/0elSbylQhA
— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) September 27, 2021
Afterward, Smith said that Pinto was “as good as anyone on the ice for us” before going on to rave about energy forward Parker Kelly.
But it was centre Ridly Greig who was being talked about Sunday night and Monday morning, when he received news that he was going to be the subject of a hearing later Monday with the NHL department of safety for his stick to the mouth of Pierre-Luc Dubois. That resulted in a 15-stitch cut. Dubois generously said later he didn’t think Greig was trying to hit him in the face, but the Sens forward does have a history of stick infractions in the WHL with Brandon.
Greig received a five-minute major and game misconduct for getting his stick up on Dubois, but it was his earlier goal, in a four-on-four situation, that first lit up social media. Greig backhanded the puck through his own legs to get around 20-year-old Jets prospect Ville Heinola, before lifting a backhand up and over the glove hand of goalie Eric Comrie.
It was the kind of goal that makes TV highlight show hosts happy.
“For your first game, you score a goal, you get involved,” Smith said of Greig. “The future is bright for him, he can skate, make plays, he’s a competitive kid, so it looks like we’ve got ourselves a really good player.”
The Senators like Greig’s edge, but he will have to rein in the stick work a bit.
Zach Sanford helps depth on wing
The Senators had long awaited the emergence of big centre Logan Brown, their 11th overall draft pick of 2016. They will wait no more. On Saturday, Brown was sent to the St. Louis Blues, who play in Brown’s hometown, along with a conditional fourth-round pick, in exchange for winger Zach Sanford. Sanford, 26, who scored ten goals for the Blues last season and 16 in 2019-20, will add some scoring and experience to Ottawa’s forward group.
Sanford, 6-4, 207 pounds, was a second-round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2013. He appeared in eight playoff games with the Blues during their Cup run of 2019, with one goal and three assists.
St. Louis will get a fourth round pick from Ottawa in 2022 if Brown does not appear in 30 NHL games with the Blues this season.
That would be something if he does. Brown, who has suffered a range of injuries and could never earn a spot out of training camp, has played just one NHL game in three professional seasons. His best year was 2018-19 when he scored 14 goals and 42 points in 56 games for AHL Belleville. Brown hasn’t had a whiff of playoff action since the spring of 2018 with the OHL Kitchener Rangers.
This is one of those trades you hope works out for both teams and both players. Brown has been frustrated trying to gain traction in Ottawa and the frustration was not his alone.