BROSSARD, Que. — Ben Chiarot knows it’s going to take time.
The six-foot-three, 225-pound defenceman, who signed a three-year, $10.5-million contract with the Montreal Canadiens over the summer, spent five full seasons building muscle memories with a Winnipeg Jets team constructed in a completely different image — that plays in a completely different way than his new club. And though three weeks of pre-season hockey helped him adjust to life in Montreal on and off the ice, there’s no substitute for the real thing.
So, if there were certain elements of Chiarot’s game that underwhelmed you as you watched the Canadiens skate through their first two games of the regular season, know that they’re under construction.
“He’s still working on it,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Monday.
“I think he realizes that we play real quick and that’s the one thing that he’s trying to move the puck quicker and he’s trying to get used to all this speed around him and that kind of stuff. But what he brings that we didn’t have is that element of physicality, toughness and with that, you earn a little bit more respect. Especially around our goaltenders, and with Shea (Weber) there and him. So, that element is where we knew it would be. The other part is stuff that we knew we would have to work with him, but he’ll get there. I think he’s got the ability to get there and feel comfortable in our way of playing and that’s just a matter of time (and) giving him the opportunity to get more and more comfortable with it.”
It’s not as if Chiarot’s been bad.
As Julien noted, the physical element of his game has been there. Chiarot leads the Canadiens with 10 hits so far, and he’s done a good job clearing out traffic in front of Carey Price.
The big lefty has also been steady enough to play over 21 minutes in both games, and the Canadiens have controlled 58.54 per cent of the shot attempts with him on the ice.
Where the Hamilton, Ont., native stands to improve is in helping the Canadiens exit their zone in possession of the puck, and in helping them make plays coming up the ice that set them up for success.
It’s something he mostly did at an above-average rate in Winnipeg last season, and that’s impressive considering the quality of defencemen that were patrolling that blue line. So there’s reason to believe in Julien’s assertion that Chiarot will get there in time with Montreal.
The good news is that Chiarot knows the way.
“We have a very fast team,” he explained. “Maybe not the biggest team, but a very fast team. Very skilled. So we want to play up the middle of the ice and use our speed and not get slowed down with battles along the wall. We want to keep the puck in the middle, keep our guys using their speed up the middle.
“In Winnipeg, we had a fast team, but we had huge wingers and huge centres and played a little more … not old-school, but it’s probably more your standard way of breaking out where you have your winger on the wall and your centre swings through and that’s kind of your primary out. Over there it’s: If you can’t find the middle, find the wall. You know you’ve got your guy on the wall and he can make the play into the middle. So that’s the biggest transition for me as a defenceman in coming here. It’s that my first look is more to the middle than it is to the wing, and that’s just something you just have to get used to. You’ve got to get used to finding the middle of the ice. Find your winger that’s swinging, or find your centre that’s swinging, and that’s a big adjustment.”
Chiarot likens it to going from being a natural drawer of the golf ball to suddenly switching to a fade. It takes time to undo years of muscle memory. And it takes lots of practice and game experience to build new habits.
“Depending on which side of the ice I’m lined up on, I’m so used to getting the puck and then automatically looking left or right,” Chiarot said. “We want to eliminate the D-to-D pass as much as possible. We want our forwards flying with the puck and that means I’ve got to train myself to a point where my first look is automatically to the middle.”
If it appeared as though Chiarot struggled with that last Thursday in Carolina, he wasn’t the only one. The middle was plugged up by the speedy Hurricanes forwards and the walls were jammed with pinching defencemen, so the Canadiens as a whole had a tough time moving the puck up the ice with control.
But with every struggle comes a lesson, and Chiarot said he and the other members of Montreal’s defence adjusted well in their 6-5 win over the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Saturday.
“From Game 1 to Game 2, it was a huge difference,” he added.
“Personally, it’s starting to come into the back of my mind that as soon as I touch the puck in my own end I have to look down the middle. Just getting used to the fact that the pass up the wing isn’t going to be there nearly as much as the one up the middle is an adjustment that takes time for someone who was playing five years the other way. From Game 1 to Game 2 it felt way better, and as the season progresses — even through the first 10 games — I think I’ll be able to adjust fairly quickly.
Another big change Chiarot is going to have to make is in how he defends in the neutral zone.
“We played a left-wing lock system in Winnipeg,” he said.
“Here we have our defencemen stay between the dots. I’m used to being able to … when I saw the puck coming up D-to-D and up my side of the ice, I was able to step right up and into the opposing winger. There was a point in the Toronto game where I stepped right up in the neutral zone and though we had guys back they weren’t expecting me to step up aggressive like that. That’s an adjustment: not feeling like I can jump that winger and knowing I’ve got to stay in a more defensive posture.”
Again, with repetition and with experience, Chiarot is confident he will find his way.
“The picture in front of me is just a little different defensively with where guys are,” he concluded. “That’s probably the second most important thing aside from breaking out is just being in good position defensively and knowing where my other guys are and knowing where I’m supposed to be.”
It’s becoming clearer for Chiarot with each passing day.