Over the last few seasons, Montreal Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot’s stock has risen significantly. In fact, so much so that the Canadiens actually opted to use one of their slots to protect him from the Seattle Kraken at the NHL Expansion Draft, at the expense of captain Shea Weber, no less.
Obviously, it’s not as simple as that. Weber’s injury situation made it a fairly easy decision to expose him and protect Chiarot alongside Jeff Petry and his partner Joel Edmundson. However, that leaves Chiarot partnerless himself, as the left-handed defenseman, who rose to prominence playing beside Weber, must find his way with someone new. Here are the top right-side candidates, ranked in order of increasing likelihood to play with Chiarot:
4. Chris Wideman
The newly acquired Chris Wideman’s skill set actually complements Chiarot’s, from a mobility perspective. However, in spite of having led the Kontinental Hockey League in scoring among defensemen last season with 41 points in 59 games, Wideman is by no means a sure thing to replicate his offensive success overseas with the Habs.
Exhibit A is his NHL-career-high 17 points in 2016-17, with the Ottawa Senators in arguably his prime production years as a 26-year-old. As a result, Wideman is seen, at least from the outside, as more of an insurance policy. Exhibit B is his one-year, $750,000 contract, which gives off the impression the same is true from the inside as well.
Exhibit C is how former Habs prospect Darren Dietz ranked No. 3 in scoring among defensemen in the KHL last season, two slots below Wideman. Dietz was only able to get in 13 games with the Habs (all in 2015-16) over the course of his three seasons with the team. No disrespect to Dietz or Wideman, but it’s simply unlikely for anyone who failed to catch on in the NHL a first time to find success in the KHL and then come back and suddenly be a difference-maker.
There are of course exceptions, like Mark Giordano, who spent a season in Russia, before returning to anchor the Calgary Flames’ blue line. However, Giordano was 23 at the time. Wideman is now 31 and likelier to get the odd game in than to find a permanent partner in Chiarot, who led the Habs in ice time during the playoffs (25:15).
3. Jeff Petry
It’s because Chiarot was such a horse for the Canadiens that it would make sense for the Canadiens to at least consider partnering him with their best defenseman in Jeff Petry. It doesn’t necessarily matter how effective or not Chiarot actually was over his 25:15 per game in the playoffs. In terms of how he’s deployed, only the perception matters and the perception internally is such that Chiarot is a valuable asset as a shutdown defenseman.
As the Canadiens’ premier puck-moving defenseman, Petry’s skill set complements Chiarot’s to a greater degree than Wideman’s above. If Chiarot is indeed the Habs’ best shutdown defenseman, why not pair him with their best offensive one?
The answer is simply that Petry and Edmundson have proven to be an effective pairing in their own right. In fact, during the regular season, Edmundson and Petry were deployed more often than Chiarot and Weber, as the team’s most-common pairing. Suddenly partnering Petry up with Chiarot would be like breaking up Tango & Cash and starting up a film franchise featuring one of them and Martin Riggs. For the record, Petry would be Cash, because he’s money.
Fun fact, Petry played with five different partners last season (minimum of 29 minutes). He played 713:45 with Edmundson. Not only was Chiarot his least-common partner (31:45), but that pairing was the least used by the Canadiens’ coaching staff, overall. Look for things to stay largely the same on that front.
2. Alexander Romanov
Despite scoring just six points during the regular season and being a healthy scratch throughout the playoffs, Alexander Romanov was re-inserted into the lineup for Game 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final. It worked, with Romanov getting on the board, en route to a Canadiens win and a fifth and deciding game. Unfortunately, it’s the healthy-scratch part that the Canadiens’ coaching staff will probably harp on when deciding on line combinations for opening night.
Romanov does present a unique combination of speed, skill, and physicality, which would in principle be a match made in heaven for Chiarot. However, it seems as though the Canadiens are content to bring him along slowly. For example, they coincidentally tried Romanov out in Chiarot’s spot last season, when the latter got injured. Romanov didn’t last long beside Weber before head coach Dominique Ducharme looked elsewhere.
Logically speaking, if Ducharme decided Romanov wasn’t ready for such an increased level of responsibility playing beside a potential mentor in Weber, he’s unlikely to move up the lineup to play with Chiarot instead. The fact that Romanov is a natural left-handed shot also works against him, here. True, Romanov plays both sides, but, if the Habs are indeed resigned to slowly bringing him along, it wouldn’t make sense for them to take him out of his element to such a degree and have him play on the right beside Chiarot.
1. David Savard
The new non-kid on the block, David Savard, does play a shutdown game like Chiarot. However, that didn’t stop the Canadiens from putting and then keeping Chiarot and Weber together, with mixed results.
Admittedly, Weber does possess an offensive element to his game that Savard does not. However, that element wasn’t as evident last season, with the lion’s share of Weber’s 19 points coming on the power play. If you take away that power-play production (11 points), Weber and Savard are very similar in terms of how they fared offensively at regular strength. And if the Canadiens were satisfied with the offensive performance or lack thereof of Chiarot and Weber at even strength, they should be with that of Chiarot and Savard.
Obviously, Savard is not Weber, nor should he try to be. In effect, replacing all of the intangibles Weber brings as captain will be a team effort. However, as far as the specific role of Chiarot’s partner is concerned, it’s likeliest to be filled by Savard, who played 19:29 per game either at even strength or shorthanded with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season.
Weber played 20:20 under those same circumstances. So, it’s not too far a bridge to cross in some respects for Savard to take Weber’s spot. Ultimately, the Canadiens were comfortable enough with his offensive deficiencies to sign him. Chiarot should be as well, to play with him. Whether or not the projected partnership translates to on-ice success remains to be seen, although it’s safe to say Savard has big skates to fill. That would be true of anyone, though. It might as well be him. It likely will be.