MONTREAL—It’s important to pick up where we left off in Part 1 of this two-part interview with Ben Chiarot, because it best serves to explain how our telephone conversation last Friday shifted from one about his breakthrough year to a broader talk about the Montreal Canadiens’ season, his teammates, and what the future holds.
“Even for our last game of the year, we played Nashville at home and it was Game 70 of the season, and still putting on the red Habs jersey gave me chills,” Chiarot said to explain what it means for him to be a Canadien. “Like, I still got excited to put it on, you know what I mean? I had been doing it for five-six months and I’m still throwing it on and still excited to put it on and go out and play in the Bell Centre. So I think those are the two things that excite me most about playing for the Habs is that sweater and playing in Montreal on a Saturday night is a pretty special feeling.”
Assuming Chiarot’s teammates feel the same way about it — and it’s safe to assume they do — his answer provoked a question that had to be asked:
How come the Canadiens were able to go 17-14-3 away from the Bell Centre this past year, but weren’t able to do better than 14-17-6 on home ice?
“I can tell you as a road team coming into Montreal, the Bell Centre… if you polled all the players across the league, the Bell Centre’s going to come up more times than not as guys’ favourite place to play,” Chiarot said. “Especially on a Western Conference team coming in. It’s a special place to play. Everyone looks forward to coming into Montreal to play. That’s the biggest thing. When people ask me about our home record, that’s the one thing I can think of is that other teams are excited to play against us and play at the Bell Centre, and that extra juice is a factor. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a reality. We had to play better at home, no question.”
In Chiarot’s view, the Canadiens could have done better in many departments.
Here are the 28-year-old’s comments on why the results of this season didn’t match his initial expectations, his insights on players like Carey Price and Shea Weber, and his feelings about the direction this team is taking moving forward.
Sportsnet: What did you expect of this edition of the team when you signed with Montreal?
BC: I expected a fast team. Certainly, a fast team that plays an up-tempo style. That’s exactly what we did.
It’s certain that when you lose Paul Byron and Jonathan Drouin for most the season — those are two of the faster, more skilled guys on our team and that’s kind of the identity of our team. So you take a big chunk of that out and that changes things for us. But I think the team was a lot of what I expected. Maybe without those injuries, our record would have been a bit different than it was.
SN: What about the team dynamic? What makes the leaders who they are? How accurate is the suggestion they’re good leaders?
BC: This would be common on a lot of teams, but the best players and the leaders on the team are usually the hardest working guys and guys everyone looks up to in a way. When you think about Carey, Shea, Gally (Brendan Gallagher), (Paul) Byron, those are the guys for us.
Shea’s our captain and a guy who’s accomplished a lot in the league, and everyone looks up to him. Look at who he is. And it’s the same with Gally and Carey and Paul. Those are guys that excel in our league and that’s just them as players. And then you look at them as a people. They’re good people, too.
When you have someone who’s successful in their work and then also a good person, it’s easy to look up to them and easy to turn to them for leadership.
SN: Who is Price in your eyes now versus when you played against him? What did you learn about him?
BC: He’s unbelievable. First, he’s a great guy. He’s a true leader.
But as a player he’s… I can tell you now that he adds years to a defenceman’s career with just the way he handles the puck and can put it on your tape. And he knocks down every rimmed puck. And that’s just him playing the puck, never mind him stopping the puck. He’s so much better than I even knew, and I thought he was the best goalie in the league before I got here. He even exceeded my expectations. He’s awesome to play with. I would say he’s one of the best players I’ve ever played with, and on a day-to-day basis you see him in practice — how serious he takes it — and you can see why he is the way he is.
SN: The critics have always said he’s too cool for school, especially when things aren’t going well. How do you view that?
BC: His personality is… he’s obviously a really laid back, quiet kind of guy. It’s funny, but someone I’d compare him to a lot, in his personality and his interests away from the rink, is Dustin Byflugien. They both love the outdoors, they love to fish, they love kind of being on their own and doing their own thing.
It was the same for Buff. For Buff to be at his best, he had to be calm, he had to be loose, he had to be relaxed and never uptight, and I think Carey’s personality is similar that way. In a game, he has to be that way. He has to be relaxed. He has to be focused, but so relaxed at the same time. Buff was the exact same way, but then you saw Buff at practice and he was a very hard-working guy, and Carey is the exact same way.
SN: Much like Carey, there’s much about Shea that remains a mystery to those outside the room. What did you learn about him?
BC: We’re partners and we became good friends over the season. I think the thing I took from him is how seriously he takes everything that goes on on the ice — whether it’s practice or a game. Any simple drill in practice… he wants to do it right, he wants it done the right way. There’s no cutting corners in any drills, and that’s what’s made him a leader in the league for such a long time.
That’s been the biggest thing I’ve taken from him is his attention to detail and how seriously he takes the game. A lot like Carey, it’s a big reason he’s been so successful is his attention to detail and doing things the right way.
SN: But what kind of teammate is he off the ice? What kind of friend he is?
BC: He’s a great guy. A good person. Someone I connected with right away. And he just cares. He cares about his teammates. He cares about the guys and what they’ve got going on, and there’s more things than people would even know about the things he does.
Like, Cale Fleury — I know Shea was texting with him when he got sent down, and for some time after he got sent down, to make sure things were going alright for him. That’s the thing a captain does. If he’s the leader of your organization, that’s what you want him to do. You want him to care about the guys in the room and Shea clearly does.
SN: You mention Fleury. What’s his potential?
BC: He’s so young, but you see it. Obviously the physicality we saw from him was great. As he gets some experience moving the puck and being calm, it’s only going to help. He’s got great skill and is a big guy who can skate and play. And he plays physical.
Most young guys you see coming now all kind of have a similar style of being slick-skating, puck-moving guys that maybe aren’t the most physical guys. But Cale is a bit of a throwback, and he can still move the puck and skate. Obviously has a bright future.
SN: How can Victor Mete take the next step?
BC: I think it’s just confidence, honestly. You see flashes of it at times this year where he’s just such a good skater that he takes the puck and he can skate by people. Not a lot of guys can do that. And he’s a smart guy in the way he moves the puck.
So I think just being able to do that consistently just comes with experience and some confidence, and I think it’s only a matter of time before he has that consistent confidence in himself.
I think he’s well on his way. He’s only 21 and he’s already got some great experience. It’s just a matter of time before he continues to improve.
SN: What do you know about Alex Romanov?
BC: I saw bits and pieces of him in the world juniors, and he seems like he plays a pretty mature game, a pro-style game. It doesn’t seem like he’s all over the ice and trying anything that guys who are 19 tend to try.
He plays a steady game, and from what I hear he likes to play a pretty physical game, too. So I’m excited to see what he brings over here.
SN: What, if anything, makes you excited about the Canadiens and their future? Can you guys contend for a Cup soon?
BC: I think everyone has to take the next step for it to happen. From the young guys like Victor and Nick Suzuki and those guys to the vets. If we all continue to improve and Carey continues being Carey and continues to do what he does, I think the pieces are there.
When you have a goalie like Carey, I think we have a lot of good pieces on defence, and guys like Victor, and (Brett) Kulak, who played some great hockey for us in the second half… and then those guys gain a bit of confidence and a little more experience. Same with young guys up front. If you see everyone improve together, that’s the biggest key.
From my experience in Winnipeg that was the key to us taking the next step. We went from a team that was out of the playoffs (in 2017) to a team in the conference finals in one year just basically off guys improving. Not just young guys, but guys like Blake Wheeler. Blake Wheeler was 29, 30 years old and the jumps he made at that age were huge for our team kind of taking the next step into the playoffs and going far. So I think that needs to be the case with us in Montreal is everyone continuing to improve and taking the next step. That’ll result in some real success.