BROSSARD, Que. — It was impossible to imagine that an injury suffered to Victor Mete on Nov. 30 would alleviate some concerns the Montreal Canadiens had about the left side of their defence, but that’s exactly what has happened since the smooth-skating 21-year-old went down in the first period of the team’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
It’s a bizarro-world reality, but an undeniable one that will have considerable impact on how Marc Bergevin navigates the trade market in the coming weeks.
Suddenly, Brett Kulak has proven to be an upgrade on the Brett Kulak we saw from the beginning of October through the end of November. And what’s happened with Ben Chiarot had one member of the Canadiens senior management group telling Sportsnet last week that the six-foot-four, 225-pounder is a better fit in this system than he was in the one he was groomed in with the Winnipeg Jets over six seasons.
In Winnipeg, Chiarot was used at times on the top pair with Dustin Byfuglien. But he most often found himself on the bottom pair when the team, which was loaded on defence, was at full health.
In Montreal, not only is Chiarot proving he can handle more responsibility — he’s gone from topping 23 minutes per game just twice in his first 11 games to doing it 17 times in his last 21 — he is proving he can be a better option on the top pair next to Shea Weber than just about anyone else that could potentially be available on the trade market.
That the 28-year-old played the best he ever has over a stretch of four consecutive games that saw him beat his previous career-high in ice-time (he played 27:11, 29:26, 30:47 and 28:54 from Nov. 30-Dec. 5) has made it obvious he’s a better player than anyone realized when he signed a three-year, $10.5-million contract with the Canadiens on July 1.
"He’s even surpassing our expectations," said the Canadiens executive. "We knew he was an upgrade on what we had last year, but it would have been hard to predict he’d play this well."
It was easy to see that Chiarot had the size and the physicality — and the experience — to supplant what was lost when Jordie Benn left for Vancouver. But no one realized how mobile the big man would prove to be.
Well, no one except for Chiarot himself.
"I think my best asset is my combination of being a bigger guy and being a guy who moves pretty well," the Hamilton, Ont., native said after the Canadiens practised on Friday.
"I can move with smaller guys or I can play heavy against the big guys. I can play against both styles of game. My combination of size and skating is what helps me out the most.
"I’m not the fastest guy, but I’m not slow. I’m quick in small spaces. My first three steps are pretty good. I can move in any direction pretty good. That’s what helps me keep up with smaller guys who are quick. They don’t gain a step on me because I can move pretty good side to side."
If you watched Chiarot burn up the ice to score the overtime winner against the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday, it’s fairly obvious he moves well up and down, too.
That’s a huge development for the Canadiens. In watching Chiarot thrive in a bigger role, they realized he can handle it.
Ditto for Kulak, who proved to be a capable top-four defenceman last season but suffered a lapse in confidence when Chiarot’s acquisition bumped him down to a lesser role.
Kulak had been in and out of the lineup prior to Mete’s injury, but, with no one else to turn to, Canadiens coach Claude Julien was forced to elevate Kulak to a No. 4 role next to Jeff Petry.
Since then, the 25-year-old has played over 18 minutes in four of six games and over 20 in two, and he’s looked very much like the guy who was consistently reliable a season ago.
"I got back in more of a rhythm," said Kulak on Friday. "I’m just playing right now, not thinking too much. Just instincts taking over and I’m just playing better hockey."
And with Mete on the mend and approaching a return — Julien said on Friday that Mete is trending in the right direction and that he’s hoping the team’s medical staff will clear him to travel with the Canadiens to Western Canada next week — Kulak feels he’ll be in a better frame of mind if he gets bumped to a lesser role.
"I think it’s just focus on what’s working for me in these minutes," he said. "And even if the minutes go back down, the shifts are the same. It’s the same thing when you step on the ice and you’re called upon, so remember what you use and what works for you and work to my own strengths."
If (and when) that change comes, it’s only going to help Kulak that 20-year-old rookie and third-pairing staple Cale Fleury is a better player now than he was two months ago.
"I think (Fleury) has (progressed) and the only thing I can tell you is that’s based on experience," said Julien. "The more games he plays, the more comfortable he gets. A couple of times he got himself in trouble going to his backhand and you’ve seen him correct that. And right now we’re working with him on his gap and having a little bit more confidence in a tighter gap. But those are all things that I think a first-year player goes through and the improvement he’s making is just based on confidence and experience."
That Fleury and Kulak have gained confidence allows them to be a pair Julien employs more regularly once Mete returns.
That Chiarot has proven he can be a legitimate top-pairing defenceman has to influence how Bergevin will approach trade possibilities for Montreal’s back end.
He was already at a disadvantage trying to find a top-four defenceman — especially one that plays on the left side — to begin with. Historically, they’re rarely available in-season.
The best ones to have moved over the last two seasons were Jake Muzzin (from Los Angeles to Toronto in on Jan. 28, 2019) and Ryan McDonagh (from New York to Tampa Bay on Feb. 26, 2018). Both were a year away from unrestricted free agency and acquired by bona fide Stanley Cup contenders who were willing to pay exorbitant prices.
It’s not to say Bergevin won’t try to bolster the Canadiens’ depth on the left side of the defence, but the idea that he’ll give up first-round picks and top prospects to pry Andy Greene out of New Jersey, Brenden Dillon out of San Jose, or Marco Scandella out of Buffalo seems far-fetched.
It also seems ill-advised to do it for a player who is under contract for years to come when the club feels confident Alexander Romanov, the 19-year-old chosen 38th overall by the Canadiens in 2018, will leave the KHL at the end of this season and become a mainstay on the Montreal blue line by next season.
Perhaps Bergevin will look at pending unrestricted free agents Ron Hainsey (Ottawa) and Ben Hutton (L.A.) as depth acquisitions worth making. It would be logical given that the cost wouldn’t be too prohibitive and that neither player would have much effect on the team’s long-term plans.
Either way, he and the Canadiens have to be somewhat relieved that Chiarot and Kulak have upgraded themselves. That it took Mete getting injured to magnify the fact isn’t what they were hoping for, but the picture looks much different now than it did two weeks ago — or even two months ago.