A couple of months ago, Guy Boucher wanted to manage the sky-high expectations surrounding the club's blue-chip prospect Thomas Chabot.
The Senators head coach limited his minutes whenever Chabot would draw into the lineup and even raised a few eyebrows by making him a healthy scratch on multiple occasions this season. Boucher would often throw up a caution flag whenever media asked him about Chabot's light workload, famously repeating the phrase, "Do we give steak to a baby?"
But as the calendar has flipped to 2018, Boucher is singing a different tune altogether when it comes to prized prospect on the blueline. And it appears as though he's ready to let the kid handle an 18 oz porterhouse.
"Whatever the kid can take, we're going to give. And that's what we're doing with Chabot. Slowly you can see him grow and get more comfortable defensively - when it's time to go and when it's not. It's a major evolution with Chabot's game right now and it's just the way we wanted it and right now it's paying off," Boucher said on Tuesday morning leading into Ottawa's game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Boucher felt like Chabot's last game against Tampa was the best of his brief 22-game NHL career to date. He logged more than 18 minutes of ice time, registered six shots on goal and collected an assist as part of the Senators 6-3 win over the Lightning. Chabot is now quarterbacking the first-unit power play -- a responsibility that has just been handed to him in the past week.
"Right now, we're reaping the repercussions of what we wanted to do with him," added Boucher.
The Senators head coach has been widely criticized for appearing hesitant to allow rookies to crack his roster. Boucher's reputation is that of a coach who would rather rely on veteran talent than trust inexperienced kids. And yet there seems to be a slight philosophical shift -- at least publicly -- in the way that Boucher is willing to give Chabot a chance to excel on his roster.
At the start of the season, Boucher appeared adamant that the left-handed shooting Chabot would have to play on his off-side, because his system was predicated on the right defenceman being the puck carrier. Since Chabot's skill set lends himself to being a mobile, puck-moving defenceman, it appeared as though he would be forced to play on his right side under Boucher's system. But over the past couple of games, Boucher has been more willing to play Chabot on his natural left side and on Tuesday, he dismissed the notion that his system was so rigid that it couldn't be altered. In the past, it was believed that Boucher preferred only having physical defencemen such as Mark Borowiecki and Dion Phaneuf play the left side, because it gave them the ability to step up and deliver major hits.
But now, he seems equally comfortable with Chabot roaming the left side, suggesting that physicality is not necessarily a prerequisite for playing that side.
"The left side is more about gap control, stepping up is a bonus. It's not a must," explained Boucher.
The ability to move Chabot to the left side has also opened up an intriguing partnership with Erik Karlsson in even strength situations. Even though Boucher has not used this pairing for an entire game, he has gone to with some degree of regularity over the past couple of games.
In some ways, it seems almost counterintuitive to have your two most skilled defencemen paired together, but Boucher is seeing the merits of a Chabot-Karlsson combination. When Karlsson has enjoyed his most success in the past, it has been with a stay-at-home defenceman such as Filip Kuba or Marc Methot. The chemistry with Chabot gives the Senators something they've never tried with Karlsson before and that's another slick, puck-moving partner.
"Playing with Erik it gives us a different look," says Boucher, who reiterated that he is still more comfortable with this pairing in home games where he can match lines.
"The idea with Erik is to have somebody who is going to back Erik up, but with Chabot, very often (Erik) has to back Chabot up. It's not always what you want to have, but at the same time, if they always have the puck....you saw what they could do last game."
For his part, Karlsson appears to be embracing the opportunity to play alongside somebody who can complement his skill set in a different way than his previous partners.
"(Chabot) has done a great job ever since he came into our lineup. He's starting to recognize what lines he's playing against out there and that's a big part of it. I think both of us are comfortable with the puck and we seem to find a way to move it fairly easily out of our zone, " explained Karlsson. "He's an easy kid to read off and he doesn't make it too complicated for a guy like me to play my style out there."
According to Boucher, Karlsson has taken a keen interest in helping develop Chabot off the ice. In many ways, Karlsson skated in the same boots as Chabot early in his career, as he spent time in the AHL and tried to win over the coaching staff at the NHL level. His then-head coach Paul MacLean would often say when Karlsson played 30 minutes, "He played 15 minutes for us and 15 minutes for them." Now, Karlsson is the veteran blueliner trying to help Chabot break into the league.
"Erik has been terrific at helping him grow and giving him an extra talk about what it was like to come into the game. Erik has taken the kid under his wing and he's doing the captain thing," added Boucher.
And for his part, Karlsson believes that Chabot is now ready to become a full-time NHL defenceman moving forward.
"He's mature enough to know what is right and what is wrong," explains Karlsson. "The most important thing is the trust of the coaches that he can be put out there in most situations and that's the only way you can learn. And I think he's ready to do so."