The Montreal Canadiens had the right idea with the Tyler Toffoli trade, but the execution was arguably off. They got moving in the right direction ahead of the 2022 trade deadline when they dealt defenseman Ben Chiarot to the Florida Panthers, though.
The Toffoli trade effectively signalled the start of a Canadiens fire sale. In contrast, the Chiarot deal showed that, while everything must go, general manager Kent Hughes is not desperate, has patience to spare, and is capable of waiting to get the right deal (from ‘Canadiens GM Kent Hughes on Ben Chiarot: ‘If the right deal is there, we’ll do it,’’ The Athletic, Feb. 16, 2022).
Needless to say, Hughes got it from the Panthers, with two picks and prospect Ty Smilanic coming back to the Habs. Here are three reasons why:
Chiarot’s Pending UFA Status
There’s no denying Chiarot had to go, not because he was an unwelcome player on the roster or anything like that. He proved his worth 10 times over last playoffs, leading the Canadiens in ice time.
However, the way Chiarot was played, oftentimes as a top-pairing defenseman, makes a good argument to the effect that sometimes less would have been more, as he could potentially offer greater stability lower down a lineup. He’ll likely get that chance on a deeper Panthers team.
Instead, Chiarot was only on his way out, because of his expiring deal. Whereas Toffoli is still under contract for two more seasons, Chiarot is a pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) the Canadiens would have lost for nothing this coming summer.
Sure, there’s a hypothetical chance the Canadiens could have re-signed him. Look at it from his perspective, though. If you’re Chiarot, a soon-to-be 31-year-old defenseman inching closer to perhaps your last big payday, do you stay with a team that undeniably (over)values you, but is undergoing a rebuild? Probably not.
Canadiens Becoming More Offensive-Minded
There’s also the notion Chiarot wouldn’t have been a fit past the transitional stage of this rebuild. Hughes has gone on record saying, “in a perfect world, we would be an offensive-minded hockey club.” Despite Chiarot’s increased output in a Habs jersey (a career-high nine goals and 21 points in 2019-20 for example), that’s just not him.
Admittedly Chiarot has produced this season, but with the benefit of regular power-play time (with the Canadiens boasting few to none legitimate offensive weapons on the blue line, due to injuries and Jeff Petry taking his sweet time getting going). His 18 total points in 54 games so far are fairly impressive, but primarily in the context of his career as a shutdown defenseman up to this point.
As an example, think back to Dale Weise a few seasons ago, before he got traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. Weise had been on track to hit 30 career points for the first time in his career in 2015-16, getting regular shifts with Max Pacioretty. After Weise got traded to the playoff-bound Blackhawks as a pending UFA (along with Tomas Fleischmann), Weise added a single assist in 15 regular-season games the rest of the way to fall short of setting a new career high.
Maybe Chiarot bucks the trend and continues to be played high up the Panthers lineup, producing all the while. For the Canadiens though, someone else better suited to a top-pairing role could realistically put up bigger numbers.
That’s why the Toffoli trade was so intriguing. Toffoli had been doing all that was expected of him in a top-line role, consistently producing, admittedly maybe without the foot speed Hughes envisioned for his vision of the team.
Chiarot doesn’t have it either. He had to go as a result, with the Weise-Fleischmann trade proving why. In exchange the Canadiens got Phillip Danault and a second-round pick that turned into Alexander Romanov. That’s about as good as it gets for that specific return. The return the Canadiens got for Chiarot was that much better.
Canadiens Get Panthers’ 2023 First-Round Pick
It obviously depends on how the Canadiens use the picks they got for Chiarot. However, in principle a first and a fourth are obviously worth more than a second (even if that second turned into Romanov).
In this instance prospect Ty Smilanic is essentially gravy. As is the fourth-round pick to a certain extent (with Smilanic being a 2020 third-round pick, for the record). Realistically speaking, Chiarot was going to fetch a first-round pick, similar to Toffoli, who got the Canadiens a 2022 first-round pick, a 2023 fifth-round pick, prospect Emil Heineman and Tyler Pitlick, as a warm body.
In a vacuum, maybe Chiarot isn’t worth even just the first-round pick, but it is the trade deadline, and prices get inflated. So, Hughes got the bare minimum plus for his prized asset. More than that though, it’s a 2023 pick.
Granted, the Panthers didn’t have a 2022 first-round pick to give, but the 2023 pick is probably worth more as an extra ticket in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes. Maybe it’s unlikely the Panthers will be in the running next season, as one of the best teams in the NHL right now. However, at the risk of jinxing it, the Panthers won the Atlantic Division with 103 points in 2015-16, only to fall below .500 the next season.
Could that happen again? Probably not, but you never know. What the Canadiens do know with near-100% certainty is the Panthers are making the playoffs this coming season. They also have the team to go far. So, their first pick this year wouldn’t have been worth as much.
The Toffoli trade wasn’t bad, to be clear. However, considering his value to the Canadiens on the contract he was, it might have paid to hold out a little longer in the hopes there was a better deal to be made. With Chiarot, especially considering the Canadiens were at risk of losing him for nothing, the Habs arguably paid the Panthers less and got more in exchange.
There’s an obvious wait-and-see element to the comparison. Neither Heineman nor Smilanic have so much as played an NHL game yet. But that’s true of any trade. Hell, it’s true of the Chiarot trade from the vantage point of the Panthers. If they go far, it will have been worth it. The Canadiens were never going to make the playoffs, so to get anything for Chiarot was a win. To get as much as they did was a statement. Before, the Canadiens were just open for business. Now, they’re intent on making as much profit as possible. More than that, business is officially now good.
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After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.