Ottawa Senators must find answers after Thomas Chabot injury

With Anton Forsberg at the top of his game, the return of Josh Norris and Drake Batherson should join the team soon too, the Ottawa Senators were in excellent position to end the season on a high note. That was until Thomas Chabot broke his hand in the second period of a 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets last Wednesday. He went out for the rest of the 2021-22 season.

Regardless of the COVID-19 issues and numerous injuries this year, the Senators need to find a way to finish this season with some momentum. Without Chabot there is a huge hole at the back, but with an injury comes an opportunity. Let’s see how the injury will affect the team this season and how they might find a way to win games without him.

Who will gain momentum without Chabot

The biggest question for the team is how they could fill the big gap in ice time without Chabot. With Chabot’s 26:23 per night up for grabs, it will be interesting to see how head coach DJ Smith distributes the load.

Surely, the charge will be borne by the committee, because there is not a player in the Senators locker room who can play effectively for 26 minutes. Judging by their 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday, Artyom Zub looks like the favorite to see an increased workload. He averaged 21:37 on the ice (ATOI) this season and hit the 27-minute mark three times. Erik Brännström has been solid since returning to the team and is an obvious candidate to replace the first unit on the power play as well.

Artyom Zub, Ottawa Senators (Jess Star/The Hockey Writers)

If Smith relies more on his veterans, as he did in the 5-1 loss to Montreal on Saturday, Nick Holden seems like the better option on the left side. He wears a letter for the Senators and plays consistently. The downside to his game is the lack of attack, but he is more complete than many other options, including Brännström.

Regardless of the ice time, the biggest hole on defense is Chabot’s impressive all-around game. He can skate, defend and create chances thanks to his exceptional vision. The proof is in the numbers. Over the past three seasons, the Senators have posted a five-to-five -74 goal differential, while Chabot has posted a five-to-five minus-4 differential over that span. The Senators are basically bottom eaters without him on the ice, while he gives them a fighting chance when he’s there.

The Senators are going to have to change that narrative going forward if they want to finish the season strong. The team’s defense will be key, as will the goalkeeper. With Anton Forsberg on a radiator, the goalkeeper shouldn’t be a problem. But the rest of the team will need to step up to keep picking up wins.

Chabot leadership vacuum

Prior to this season, there were questions about the Senators’ vacant captaincy. With Brady Tkachuk heading into a contract dispute and Chabot already locked in long term, there was a chance that Chabot could be named team captain.

Thomas Chabot Ottawa Senators
Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators (Jess Star/The Hockey Writers)

It all ended on opening night, when Tkachuk was named captain after signing a deal to stay in Ottawa. But there’s no doubt that Chabot is one of the team’s leaders and an integral part of the team’s locker room culture.

This season, even though the Senators haven’t come close enough to qualify for a playoff berth, Chabot has worked hard and tirelessly every time he steps on the ice. He is the type of player who gives his all, and his teammates notice it. He sets an example for young players on the roster, like recalls Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker.

When ‘Chabby’ came out, it was a huge hit for us. I could just feel it emotionally on the bench. He does so many things. Word got out in the room after [the second period] that Chabby would not return and what the injury was.

Senators head coach DJ Smith

When he’s out of the lineup, the team could deflate more easily. They might get angry if they give up a few goals early in the game. Look for additional leaders like Connor Brown and Drake Batherson (on his return) to bring some passion and spur the team to win.

How this will shape Pierre Dorion’s trade deadline plans

The Senators will surely be looking to make a few moves before Monday’s trade deadline. Reports suggest Nick Paul is available due to the senators’ inability to meet him at the $3 million AAV he was seeking. Other available players could include Chris Tierney, Michael Del Zotto and Anton Forsberg.

Nick Paul Ottawa Senators
Nick Paul, Ottawa Senators (Jess Star/The Hockey Writers)

But now that Chabot is out for the long term, general manager Pierre Dorion may choose to keep some of the players likely to move. The Senators were already shallow on defense, and now they’re even shallower. Dorion might have been interested in moving someone like Nikita Zaitsev, whose contract has handcuffed the team for years, or giving Victor Mete a fresh start elsewhere. But without plenty of players to fill their roles, it will be difficult for him to further exhaust the depth chart.

Related: The reconstruction of senators threatened by Goal issues

Chabot’s injury could also trigger more moves than Dorion originally anticipated. Although the Senators don’t have much depth on defense, they have the two youngsters of Thomson and Bernard-Docker waiting in the minors. Although they could stay there for the rest of the season, swapping a few more defenders could give them an extended opportunity with the big club. It seems more reasonable to play one of them in the bottom pairing than to trot Josh Brown there for 15 minutes a night.

Moreover, this could be a golden opportunity to find Chabot a reliable and consistent defensive partner. Artyom Zub has been solid, but he may not be good enough to skate on a Cup contender’s best pairing. He is in a much better position to sit on the second pair. Dorion could reasonably pack someone like Anton Forsberg and a first-round pick for a more reliable, top-notch defenseman.

Who will settle for next season

With Victor Mete and Josh Brown whose contracts are about to expire, Chabot’s injury represents a golden opportunity for some of Ottawa’s young players. There will be open spots in defense next season, and there’s no better time than now to establish the high ground.

Brännström is the most obvious candidate to come out on top and secure a top-four role for next season. The once highly touted prospect has turned into a good but not amazing draft since returning to the NHL. He’s supposed to be known for his offensive prowess, but he’s only had six points in 33 games this season. If he has any hope of getting more minutes next season, he needs to take advantage of his power play this season.

Other players who could get more time next season are Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker. They both play well in the AHL, with Thomson having produced 19 points in 29 games. Bernard-Docker, a stay-at-home defenseman, has six points in 38 games. They were both called up to the NHL this season, and Thomson had a chance to team up with Chabot for a few games. Due to the tight playoff race the Belleville Senators find themselves in right now, they may choose to keep the two young defensemen in the minors. However, if either or both are called up, they should be looking to secure a low-end role for next year.

Lassi Thomson Ottawa Senators
Lassi Thomson, Ottawa Senators (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With these two possibly staying in the minors for the rest of the season, the most intriguing player soon to be in the roster is former fifth overall pick Jake Sanderson. Son of former NHL player Geoff Sanderson, the solid defenseman has set fire to the NCAA this season with 26 points in 23 games. Pierre Dorion has previously said Sanderson will join the Senators at the end of his college season. With extensive experience, including the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, Sanderson is a top contender, especially during Chabot’s absence. He is currently injuredbut if he has a good end to the season, he’ll be a lock for second pair next season and will surely take some of Chabot’s offensive load off.

With plenty of questions looming, the loss of Chabot worsens the trade deadline and the rest of the season for the Senators. The chance to step in for more minutes and leadership opportunities should be enough to find out what the Senators are made of and what we can expect from them in 2022-23.

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