MONTREAL — It’s the number that stands out most when reviewing Ben Chiarot’s 2018-19 statistics. Average time on ice: 18:37.
That he’s a six-foot-three, 220-pound left-handed defenceman who skates well, plays well, is dependable in his own end and is willing to put his body on the line — the 28-year-old from Hamilton, Ont., ranked second on the Winnipeg Jets in blocked shots (139) and third in hits (171) in 2018-19 — makes him a good fit on a Montreal Canadiens team in desperate need of that kind of player. That he’s in his prime and coming off putting up career highs in goals (five), assists (15) and points (20) in just 78 games doesn’t hurt, either.
So, on a three-year contract that carries an annual average value of $3.5 million, Chiarot qualifies as reasonable bang for the buck. Factor in Montreal’s need at the position, his age and experience and his steadiness at both ends of the rink, and it’s easy to see why the Canadiens were comfortable with the terms.
“We are very happy to have come to an agreement with Ben Chiarot today,” said Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin via press release on Thursday. “He is a very reliable defenceman and a solid player who will fill a need for our club. He is the type of player who can play some big minutes and be used in different situations.”
That’s the key to this whole deal. Chiarot may not drive offence like unrestricted free agent Jake Gardiner does, but he can contribute. Most importantly, he can be depended on for upwards of 20 minutes per night and as an anchor to a player like Jeff Petry, who pushes the pace and often finds himself involved in the rush and in the play up the ice.
With 305 games of experience under his belt, Chiarot is a fully developed defenceman who came up in a good system. He’s low maintenance, and that has its own value given that Victor Mete, Brett Kulak and Mike Reilly, who were locked into positions on the left side of Montreal’s defence, own just 438 games of experience between them.
The fact that none of the three would be considered bona fide top-four defencemen — Mete is certainly trending towards becoming one but hasn’t yet reached his full potential at 21 years old — was part what made acquiring a player like Chiarot a must.
Another reason this had to be done? Without making this acquisition, the Canadiens would be pushing through the off-season and towards the 2019-20 regular season without much insurance at the position. An injury to any one of Mete, Kulak or Reilly would have them dipping into their American Hockey League reserve, reaching for players who don’t exactly scream “reliable NHL depth.”
Digging down to promote Karl Alzner, who was parked in the AHL just one year after signing a five-year, $23.1-million contract in the summer of 2017, is anything but reassuring.
Yes, earlier this summer the Canadiens signed Otto Leskinen, an intriguing, 22-year-old offensive defenceman out of Finland’s top men’s league. They also have 25-year-old defenceman Xavier Ouellet, who has 160 games of NHL experience. And then there’s Gustav Oloffson, the 24-year-old Swede who appeared in 56 games with the Minnesota Wild before he was traded to Montreal last year. You might consider all three of them as adequate options for spot duty, but it’s difficult to imagine any one of them being relied on to provide much else.
Adding Chiarot to the fold at least increases the chances we won’t have to find out. He’s not the be-all-end-all solution to this problem Montreal had, but you’d have to consider him to be an upgrade on Jordie Benn, the 31-year-old lefty who spent two-and-a-quarter seasons in Montreal. Even taking into account that the numbers between both players are similar (Benn had a career-high 22 points in 2018-19), Chiarot gets the edge if only by virtue of being a natural on the left side, where Benn — a natural on the right — struggled considerably in his time with the Canadiens.
Chiarot’s size and skating put it over the top, but not so much so that Bergevin should rest on this move. He has 24 players signed to his NHL roster, four restricted free agent forwards in Artturi Lehkonen, Joel Armia, Michael McCarron and Charles Hudon who won’t break the bank on new contracts to deal with, and he has close to $8.5-million in space under the $81.5 million upper limit of next season’s salary cap.
It’s a lot of money to play with for a general manager who believes you can never have enough depth on defence.
We’re also talking about a GM who tried to get top centre Matt Duchene signed to a contract before Duchene signed a seven-year, $56-million deal with the Nashville Predators on Monday. A GM who signed 21-year-old centre to a $42.27-million offer sheet, which the Carolina Hurricanes announced they would match at some point between now and this coming Sunday.
After trading gritty, versatile forward Andrew Shaw to the Chicago Blackhawks in a cap-clearing move last weekend, we suspect Bergevin’s in the market for some help up front, too.