There’s a renewed energy at Harbour Station this season, the home rink for the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs.
Celebrating its 10th season in the league, the proud franchise has returned to respectability after a down season last year. The team sits second in the Maritimes Division, behind the Moncton Wildcats, and they have enough depth to make a strong playoff push. General Manager Darrell Young, who was hired in March of last year, revamped the team in the off-season, plucking several free agents from Ontario and the United States, but a lot of this season’s success can be attributed to the development of the team’s drafted players.
In the 2013 QMJHL Entry Draft, the Sea Dogs selected Nathan Noel third overall. The Newfoundlander now leads the team in scoring. In the second round, the team selected defenseman Thomas Chabot, who promptly made the opening night lineup as a 16-year-old. In 55 games as a rookie, Chabot experienced the common struggles first-year players go through – defending bigger opposition and often looking overwhelmed – but still managed to contribute offensively. Olivier Leblanc (CBJ) was the only Sea Dogs defenseman to finish with more points than Chabot’s 22. Now, with Leblanc being recently dealt to Cape Breton, Chabot is unequivocally the Sea Dogs’ top offensive defender, leading the team with 27 points – eight goals and 19 assists – in 45 games.
The offensive improvement is a mix of added confidence and an improved supporting cast.
“We’ve got good forward lines, so that’s helped me to get more points, and obviously we have a really good, young defense, so I think that’s helped me a lot to get more points,” the 17-year-old Chabot explained prior to a weekday meeting with Drummondville early in January.
Chabot earns ample power-play time, but you’d be hard pressed to find him on the penalty kill much this season. He’s an offensive defenseman by nature, and admits as much, but continues to improve defensively. Part of the reason for the Sea Dog’s success, however, has been the team’s ability to keep players comfortable within the system.
For Chabot, that means second- or sometimes first-pairing minutes at even strength and plenty of power play time. Guys like Adam Bateman or Bailey Webster, then, can get comfortable in their roles as penalty killers.
“We all have our own role and that’s what makes our defense really good.”
The Sea Dogs pictured Chabot as a valuable first-pairing offensive defenseman when they drafted him, but, knowing the team was going to be young and inexperienced in his rookie year, had to keep expectations reasonably low. It’s a huge jump for a 16-year-old defender to go from midget hockey to handling 19- and 20-year-old forwards.
“We didn’t have a very good team last year and we were very young,” said Sea Dogs’ assistant coach Greg Leland. “Thomas played the power play, and we tried to shelter him and not play him against the other team’s top lines, keep him away from too many penalty-kill situations. He’s a mentally tough kid; he never seemed to get too high or too low, so that’s one thing that’s good for him. If he had a tough game he was always able to shake it off.”
The power play is not where Chabot wants to make a living, however. It might be where he is most effective, but he does not want to be a one-dimensional player. And at 6’2″ with a growing frame – “I gained an inch last summer,” he says – he certainly has the size to keep attackers away from the net, but needs to work on doing so consistently.
“He’s got great skill, he’s really good at handling the puck and getting it out of our own end,” Leland explained, before the expected caveat – “like most 17 year old players, especially defensemen, he’s got to work on his play away from the puck, but that’s our job to teach him and his job to be receptive to that.”
So far, he has been. He has a plus/minus of +16, well above last year’s -29 rating. A lot of the improvement can be attributed to the team’s improvement as a whole, but it’s Chabot’s attitude and mannerisms that makes one a believer when he speaks.
“It’s always what I want to get better in – my defensive zone,” he said.
The desire to be a complete player on both sides of the ice is nothing new for Chabot, however. He began skating when he was 3 and early on in minor hockey was a forward, before being moved back to the point as a result of his avid backchecking.
“I was really an offensive player when I was young, scoring a lot of goals, so everybody tried to put me as a forward, but every time I was always coming back on defense. So my dad just chose to leave me on defense,” Chabot explained, grinning.
Years later that decision has paid off as Chabot is now hearing his name brought up as a potential first- or second-round pick in this coming June’s NHL Draft. He is currently ranked 15th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting and 22nd by ISS Hockey, and the decision to play him as a 16-year-old last season is not one the team, nor player, regrets. Now, with a stacked blueline also featuring highly-touted Czech defender Jakub Zboril (2015) and Luke Green (2016), Chabot is earning his ice-time, and he’s becoming a better player for it.
“Last year, we had an old defense and we didn’t have a really good season, so the coaches tried to give more time for 16-year-olds. This year, we’re getting a lot of ice-time, but we have to work for it.”
Follow Chris Roberts on Twitter via @ChrisRoberts_7