Thomas Chabot is confident the Ottawa Senators can take a jump up the NHL standings next season.
"When you look at the guys that were on the team this year, everybody's getting a year older, everybody's got one more year of experience, so I think yes, definitely we want to take a step next year," the 23-year-old defenseman said Thursday. "When you look at the guys that were down in [Belleville of the American Hockey League], some of those guys are going to want to make the jump and have an impact on our team next year. So definitely I am thinking that we will be a stronger team, a better team next year, and I think everybody in the locker room agrees on that and everybody wants to do it and make it happen."
The Senators (25-34-12) had the second-fewest points in the Eastern Conference (62; the Detroit Red Wings have 39) when the NHL season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. Ottawa hasn't made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since reaching the Eastern Conference Final in 2017.
But Chabot is one reason for hope. He has 39 points (six goals, 33 assists) in 71 games. He's averaging an NHL-high 26:00 of ice time per game, and nightly faces the opposition's best players. He's a minus-18 but said he's seen improvement during a season-long focus on his defensive play.
"It's something I want to really get better at, being a good, solid two-way defenseman and playing against the top players from other teams," he said. "It's far from being perfect. ... It was a bigger challenge every night playing against top lines, but I think those are challenges that I'm looking forward to. It's something that I bring into my game and I want to do for the days that we'll be in the playoffs and be a playoff team."
Video: Season Snapshot: Ottawa Senators
General manager Pierre Dorion said Tuesday that Chabot's improvement is one of a number of positive steps the Senators took this season.
"I felt we took a big step overall just as a team in how we played the game," he said. "We were never out of games, we came back in games. I think those are things that we're really happy about. I think the development of some of our younger players, whether you look at the step that (forward) Brady Tkachuk took, I think the step that Thomas Chabot took defensively, these are things that I think are very important. I think some of the steps that our prospects have taken in Belleville are all important things in our rebuild that we know are going to bring us success in the long term."
Belleville was leading the AHL North Division when that league paused its season. That team features a number of the Senators' top prospects, including forwards Josh Norris, who is fourth in the AHL with 61 points (31 goals, 30 assists) in 56 games, plus forwards Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton and Vitaly Abramov, and defenseman Erik Brannstrom.
A number of those players in Belleville have gotten some NHL experience, which has added to Chabot's excitement level.
"It was fun as a player to see a lot of younger guys coming in and really showing everybody they wanted to be there and they want to be part of the success we're going to have later on," he said. "I think that was a big thing for us."
In addition to what's in Ottawa and what's developing in Belleville, the Senators could have three picks in the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft. In addition to their pick, the Senators have the San Jose Sharks' selection from the Erik Karlsson trade in September 2018. They also could get the New York Islanders' pick from the Jean-Gabriel Pageau trade Feb 24 as long as it's not in the top three.
Video: Top 10 Senators Plays ... Thus Far
Dorion isn't ready to project Ottawa as a playoff team as soon as next season but said the seeds have been planted for long-term success.
"We want to be a much better team," Dorion said. "We feel we will be a much better team. ... Once hockey resumes let's see how we finish the 2019-20 season. Let's see what additions we make as far as draft, prospects, and then we'll have a better gauge of where we aim to be."
Chabot sees good times coming as well as the players grow together under first-year coach D.J. Smith.
"We're a young group of guys, we're still learning," he said. "Obviously some nights it's going to go well, some nights it's not going to go as well, but this is all part of the plan. We had the coaching staff's support all year. They're trying to make us change our identity, to skating and playing hard every night and never giving up and I think we've shown that plenty of times during the season and I think that's something we got to keep building on for the years to come."