BROSSARD, Que. — It’s just a practice drill but don’t tell that to Ben Chiarot, who finishes it off with a crosscheck to Phillip Danault’s chest.
A few minutes earlier, in his first on-ice session as a Montreal Canadien, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound defenceman was engaged in a one-on-one battle with 5-foot-9, 163-pound speedster Paul Byron. Chiarot picked up the puck in the corner, pushed his shoulder into Byron’s chest, backed the diminutive winger into the crease and threw a spin-around wrist shot into Charlie Lindgren’s net. Then, as possession changed, Chiarot stiff-armed Byron, threw him off the puck and poke-checked it to centre ice.
It was just before crosschecking Danault in the next drill that he sent Brendan Gallagher flying with a hard bump. Then the big man slashed Gallagher in the shin when the plucky forward bounced back up and charged at him.
This is Ben Chiarot as advertised. The 28-year-old was signed to a three-year, $10.5-million contract on July 1 to bring this type of nasty to a Canadiens blue line that, outside of Shea Weber, didn’t really have it last season. It’s the style he honed as part of a heavy Winnipeg Jets team over the last five seasons, and a style that should complement new partner Jeff Petry’s game perfectly.
“Just in talking with him, he’s a guy that I guess he’s more on the defensive side,” said Petry on Thursday. “I had a chat with him, and he said if we do play together, I’d have the green light to do my thing, to skate the puck and do my thing and know that he’ll be back there to support me.”
The expectation is that Chiarot will be able to do that—and much more for the Canadiens this season. As former teammate with the Jets and new teammate with the Canadiens Joel Armia put it on Friday, Chiarot will give this crew’s backend everything it needs.
“I think we need a strong, fast, left-handed defenceman, and he’s all of that,” Armia said. “He’s really good on his skates for his size, he’s got a really good shot, and he’s got surprisingly good hands. I think he’s going to be really good for us.”
Chiarot, who hails from Hamilton, Ont., was certainly that for the Jets last season. He ranked second on the team in blocked shots (139), third in hits (171) and he put up career highs in goals (five), assists (15) and points (20) over his 78 games. He also averaged over 18-and-a-half minutes of ice time per game and played a key role on the penalty kill.
Those are all things Chiarot hopes to build on with the Canadiens this season, but it’s that physical dimension he brings that had such appeal to general manager Marc Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien.
“We’re trying to balance things out,” Julien said after pushing his charges through practice on Friday. It’s something they’re unquestionably better-equipped to do with Chiarot now in the fold.
The 5-foot-9, 183-pound, smooth-skating Victor Mete opened camp on a pairing with Weber, and puck-mover Brett Kulak found himself removed from one with Petry and placed on one with emerging 6-foot-1 prospect Josh Brook. With 6-foot-3 Swede Christian Folin and 6-foot-2 bruiser Noah Juulsen also in the mix for that spot next to Kulak, you can see the dynamic Julien is looking for on his defence.
Chiarot knows his toolkit will help his coach establish it.
“I’ve always been a more physical player,” he said after practice. “Just by my size and skating, that’s kind of how I got drafted. How I got into the NHL was being a big, physical defenceman and a guy that’s hard to play against. It’s been refined over the years to certain areas where I can be physical, and that just takes experience. Over the last couple of years, I’ve taken a big step in becoming that shutdown defenceman that I’ve always wanted to be, and I think I certainly have some room to grow. But I’m getting pretty close to the player I that I want to be.”
Chiarot’s also a player who’s thrilled to be in Montreal.
“To be part of an organization that’s been around for so long, I mean; this is kind of the core of what hockey is. It’s being a Montreal Canadien,” he said. “So it’s kind of surreal when you’re in the city and around the team and putting the jersey on. Just to take pictures today having it on for the first time it’s a definitely a cool feeling. Definitely excited to be here.”
It showed in the way Chiarot approached his first day in a Canadiens uniform. He was energetic, engaged, and yeah—he was ruthless.
He didn’t just make Friday’s session a tough one for Byron, Danault and Gallagher; he was a force to reckon with for just about every player he matched up against.
Armia suggested it’s something Canadiens followers should get used to.
“I think you’re going to see that he can really destroy guys when he gets the chance,” Armia said. “He’s really physical. He has really good size, and he’s really strong. He’s not fun to play against in practice.”
So long as that proves to be the case in games, the Canadiens will be better off with Chiarot in the fold.