Could the Ottawa Senators be entering their greatest era as a franchise? After tearing down their roster in favour of a total rebuild, the team has compiled an impressive stockpile of young stars. Tim Stützle, Drake Batherson, and Josh Norris have all the makings of All-Star calibre players, while Alex Formenton, Colin White, Victor Mete, Erik Brannstrom, Jacob Bernard-Docker, and Shane Pinto are all expected to play significant roles this season and are all under 25 years old. Egor Sokolov, Lassi Thomson, Jake Sanderson, Tyler Boucher, and Ridly Greig also promise to bring high-end skill to the roster in the coming years, giving the Senators depth like they’ve never had before.
There is a lot of talent on this young team, but there clearly are two faces at the front of it. Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot have clearly emerged as the team’s two MVPs since they joined the organization. They’ve lived up and exceeded their status as first-round selections, and their presence has given the Senators a chance to win every night. Without them, Ottawa would be years away from completing its rebuild. With them, they have a chance to win a championship.
Both players are worthy of being called the face of the franchise. They’re both young, incredibly talented, and likely will remain with the team for quite some time. But when it comes down to it, who really holds the title as the Senators’ top star? Do Tkachuk’s grit and tenacity outclass Chabot’s calm two-way dominance, or does Chabot’s skills at all ends of the ice give him the upper hand over a player who hasn’t demonstrated a lot of defensive prowess as of yet? There are lots of questions in this battle, so let’s break down what makes each player valuable to the Senators.
Thomas Chabot – The Elite Two-Way Defender
Chabot jumped onto the scene in 2014-15 with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs. Ranked 15th among North American skaters for the 2015 NHL Draft, he wowed scouts with his intelligence and soft hands, but he significantly improved his two-way presence over the season after getting benched earlier in the season. He promised to be the total package on the blue line, and the Senators used their 18th pick that spring to add him to their organization, believing he would be a future star.
It wasn’t long until they were proven right. In 2018-19, in his second full season in the NHL, Chabot emerged as a dominant offensive force, leading the Senators’ blue line with 55 points and sitting third on team scoring. After losing Karlsson before the season, it was a relief to see that the team was left in good hands. It also meant that the Senators needed to lock him up to a long-term contract before too long. Thankfully, they did just that before the 2019-20 season, inking him to the biggest contract in Senators’ history, giving him an eight-year, $64 million deal.
Right now, the Senators don’t have a strong defence — The Hockey Writers’ Matthew Zator ranked it 28th in the NHL — but as long as Chabot is there, they will have a number one guy to build around. Last season, it was one of the reasons that coach D.J. Smith admittedly overplayed him, which likely led to the shoulder injury that caused him to miss the last four games. But the less time he played, the worse the Senators did; in the 10 games Smith utilized him the least, Ottawa had a 2-7-1 record. In the 10 games he played the most, the Senators lost just once in regulation.
But Chabot isn’t just good for the Senators; he’s one of the best defenders in the league. Last season, he had 28.6 takeaways and 11.5 zone entries per 60 minutes, which ranked 5th and 15th among defenders, respectively. While he also ranked near the bottom in puck battle win percentage, the low ranking is likely the result of the amount they asked him to do. For example, he led the team in even strength possession while also sitting first in giveaways. He also sat third in defensive point shares, second in offensive point shares, and second in blocked shots. He’s done a little of everything thanks to having little support around him, and though that should be changing soon, he still routinely gives the Senators a better chance at winning, plain and simple.
There’s no question Chabot is a leader from the blue line on the ice. He was named an alternate captain in 2020-21 and has been one of the favourites to be the Senators’ future captain. “Obviously, it’s something I would love for sure,” he told The Athletic’s Ian Mendes. “It would be a huge honour and I think anybody would say the same thing. It’s something that would be great, but this is a decision the management is going to make and I’m going to go with it” (from ‘Senators’ Thomas Chabot on recovery from injury, ice time, the captaincy, Brady Tkachuk’s contract and more’, The Athletic – 3/09/21).
But what maybe makes him the most deserving is his humility. In the same interview, Chabot added, “That’s something that would definitely be great, but I’m not trying to change the person I am. It’s not going to change me whatever happens.” He has committed to playing his style of game and being the best player he can be regardless of what letter, if any, adorns his jersey. The team comes first, and for a team that’s still growing into an identity, that’s someone who you want leading your team.
Brady Tkachuk – The Dominant Pest
Like Chabot, Tkachuk was a high-profile prospect before the Senators added him to their team. As a freshman with Boston University, the winger was fourth on the team in points and first in assists as well as penalty minutes. It made him one of the top players available for the 2018 NHL Draft, and many assumed he’d get taken in the top three. However, Ottawa, who owned the fourth pick, got lucky when the Montreal Canadiens took center Jesperi Kotkaniemi third overall instead, allowing the talented power forward to fall into their lap.
Even more surprising was that Tkachuk decided to join the Senators immediately, forgoing his college career to turn pro in 2018-19. Very few college players choose that path, instead opting to play out their eligibility before signing their first contract, but Tkachuk saw that he had a real opportunity with the Senators. They were lacking in almost every offensive area, and he would get to play valuable minutes almost immediately. It was a tall order for the teenager, but one that general manager Pierre Dorion thought he could handle.
“Through tenacity, combativeness and work ethic, he also exemplifies leadership skills that we know will benefit the team now and well into the future. Most of all, Brady has shown us through his maturity that he is coachable, committed to teamwork and determined to help us strengthen our team chemistry. For all these reasons, he is an exciting young player whose growth and development we are eager to support.”
Pierre Dorion, NHL.com
But no one was quite prepared as to how well he would handle it. Tkachuk dove headfirst into every opportunity, averaging 16 minutes a night while playing regularly on a top-six line with Mark Stone and Colin White. As an 18-year-old rookie, he finished the season with 71 games played, sat third on the team with 22 goals, fifth with 45 points (second among all rookies), and second in hits. He also ranked highly in possession metrics, ranking sixth in Corsi for percentage and seventh in Fenwick for percentage.
Every season since, Tkachuk has taken a step forward, establishing himself as the Senators’ most valuable forward. He led the team in points and hits in 2019-20, then recorded his highest point-per-game rate in 2020-21, which put him on pace for a career-high 53 points over a full season. Although he hasn’t emerged as the dominant star many expected him to be, he has become a driving force for the Senators. Last season, his best offensively, he was 90th in points and 68th in goals across the league, but second in shots on goal with 220. Like Chabot, the Senators have him asked to do nearly everything, from taking faceoffs to leading the power play, yet he’s proven he’s more than capable of handling it all.
Despite his age, Tkachuk is already one of the team’s most respected leaders. He’s been a favourite to be the next captain since 2019-20, when the team first announced they would go without one. This past season, he demonstrated his leadership capabilities several times, but maybe most notably when rookie goalie Filip Gustavsson earned his first career win against the Calgary Flames. Tkachuk confronted the Flames’ player who grabbed the game puck and looked to head off to the dressing room. He looks out for his teammates any way he can, both on and off the ice. The only problem is that his holdout may force the Senators’ hand, as they reportedly want to name a captain out of training camp, and their top forward isn’t there, as he’s still trying to get a new contract signed.
No Easy Choice
There is no question that the Senators have two legitimate stars on their hands with Tkachuk and Chabot. The pair will almost certainly end up on a few All-Star rosters and potentially compete for individual awards in the future. But when it comes to picking a clear frontrunner, there is no easy answer. Chabot is Ottawa’s anchor on the blue line, and with him, they are able to remain competitive. Take away his influence, and their defensive presence drops to almost nothing, especially while they wait for their top prospects in Sanderson, Brannstrom, Lassi Thomson, and Jacob Bernard-Docker to mature and develop.
Tkachuk has a similar influence on the forward units. Without him, there would be a huge gap on the first line, and despite the rise of Josh Norris and Drake Batherson, they would have a much harder time against opponents if he wasn’t there. He’s become the model for what the franchise wants to become — frustrating, difficult to play against, and gritty. But even more so, he exemplifies the character they want to bring with each new addition to the team. These are in-your-face players, but also ones that give back to their communities and look out for their teammates in all senses. It’s a strongly-bonded team, and a lot of that starts with Tkachuk and his personality.
So, when it comes down to it, the Senators can’t live without either player and still remain competitive. Both Chabot and Tkachuk are too important to the future of the team, and though only one can be named captain, that will never imply that one is worth less than the other. This is a team not built around one star, but several young stars. If they can keep developing top prospects, then the future will certainly be bright for Ottawa.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.