The long-time knock on the Ottawa Senators — more than deserved, to be fair — was that no one wanted to play there. That might, finally, be changing.
Bad ownership or not, bad management or not, you have to say the NHL’s CBA is working as intended: Without other legitimate options to go elsewhere, the Senators’ two biggest restricted free agents on expiring or expired deals are now locked in long-term. First it was Colin White, signing earlier this summer at six years for a little too much money based on his track record.
And yesterday, it was Thomas Chabot, signing for eight years and an $8-million AAV. That one looks like a bit of a better bet, simply because the kind of season Chabot turned in at age 21 is one you don’t typically come across from too many defensemen. He’s dynamic, crafty and fun to watch - the kind of player you build around from both an on- and off-ice standpoint.
Based on how he performed last year, that $8 million per year could end up looking like a big bargain by Year 3 or 4, at the latest. Much like the White deal — which came after he played a good chunk of the season with Mark Stone, one of the three or four best forwards in the league — there are some serious WOWY issues to consider.
Chabot played about a third of his 1,530-plus minutes at 5-on-5 the last two seasons with Stone. When together, they were incredible: Almost 59 percent on expected-goals, and this is, you’ll recall, the 2017-19 Ottawa Senators we’re talking about. When they were apart, Chabot’s xG share plunged to 45.6 percent, while Stone’s dipped less significantly to 52 percent.
Obviously the argument is that when Chabot wasn’t playing with Stone (his fourth most-common forward partner behind Matt Duchene, Bobby Ryan, and Ryan Dzingel), he wasn’t exactly getting the benefit of elite talent to help him excel. The Senators’ depth the last few years has been a wasteland and it would be hard to argue otherwise. But the extent to which Stone helped everyone on the Senators the last few years is significant, to the point it’s no longer considered a boutique opinion that he’s among the league’s elite of elites.
So while you might have some reservations about the bet from the Senators, you have to keep in mind that Chabot himself has been a bit of a buoy for his teammates; Dylan DeMelo, Duchene, Ryan, Dzingel, Cody Ceci and so on all perform way better with Chabot than without him. Stone is an exception, and that’s not a coincidence. Elite players perform at elite levels with other elite players, but they can make everyone else look better. Chabot does that. Inarguably.
Maybe the money feels a bit too big, but you overpay for talent and you make sure you have the flexibility to attract talent to surround him with. The Sens have a nice little farm system for themselves and if their top two pairs for the next eight years or so is Chabot then Erik Brannstrom, they’ll be in very good shape.
It’s worth noting, however, that up until this summer, it would have been absolutely no big deal at all for literally any team to sign its top young player for eight years at a big freight. Those conditions have obviously changed a bit since there are still so many stars (Laine, Connor, Tkachuk, Rantanen) still on the outs with their teams, but in particular the way the media has talked about the Senators’ two big extensions this summer has been bizarre.
For Ottawa to get this done with Chabot instead of pushing it to the limit, risking an offer sheet, and all the rest would have been a disaster. But getting it done shouldn’t really earn them the pat on the head they’ve received from the hockey media writ large. You’re supposed to be able to sign these guys, that’s why the CBA is so restrictive. I know Ottawa’s been through it the last few years, to put it mildly, but locking up your current and long-term No. 1 defenseman and a guy who might be your No. 2 center if you have any legitimate aspirations of being competitive is not, in itself, praiseworthy.
You love to get Chabot locked up. You like to get White in the fold. The money is pretty much fine and might end up being more than that. You can sell that to the fans, one supposes. But let’s save the congratulations until they get a lot more young talent in the door and make sure those guys, too, not only sign long-term but aren’t going to demand a trade in three years.
This is the Senators going about the business of being a competent NHL franchise. That’s a huge improvement for them, but if anyone else did that contract, the reaction would justifiably be much more muted.
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