The Edmonton Oilers originally had just over $7 million of cap space heading into free agency, but with the Zack Kassian trade and Duncan Keith hanging up the skates after 17 seasons, they’ll likely have over $20 million to make moves and re-sign key players.
With the departure of Keith and his $5.5 million average annual value (AAV), they’ll still need to find one or two defensemen on the left side. It’s rumoured that Brett Kulak is likely to return and defender Philip Broberg is set to have a bigger role with the team next season, but I envision a scenario where the youngster fills in when injuries occur. Having said that, the Oilers should still acquire another veteran defenseman.
Taking a look at the unrestricted free agent defensemen available when free agency opens on July 13, a notable player that the Oilers should try and acquire is Ben Chiarot. He’s closing in on almost 500 NHL games played, and his gritty “in-your-face” style of play is what is needed on the Oilers’ back end, an element that’s been missing since Adam Larsson was selected by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft.
Chiarot Played Solid Seasons With the Canadiens
Chiarot was drafted in 2009 by the Atlanta Thrashers, now the Winnipeg Jets. He’s a 6-foot-3 and 234-pound physical defenseman who is difficult to play against. He played six seasons in Winnipeg before signing a three-year deal worth $3.5 million AAV with the Montreal Canadiens in June 2019. In 164 games with the Canadiens, he tallied 17 goals and 29 assists and 339 hits and 279 blocked shots.
An upside to Chiarot is his playoff experience, as he played a critical role in the Canadiens’ Stanley Cup run in 2021 when they eventually lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Final. That postseason, the Hamilton, Ontario native led all Canadiens defensemen in ice-time with 25:14 time on ice (TOI), to go along with 88 hits in 22 games.
However, there’s debate about Chiarot and his effectiveness when he’s on the ice. As The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn puts it, “analytics folks hate him, hockey men love him” (from ‘Top 50 NHL Unrestricted Free Agents: From Johhny Gaudreau to Filip Forsberg and More,’ The Athletic, 6/9/22). Quite frankly, he is the complete opposite of Oilers’ forward Jesse Puljujarvi, in that the analytics community is not a fan of his, but many experts in hockey view him as a valuable commodity.
Maybe a knock against the defenseman, for no fault of his own, was what it took to pry him out of Montreal. Before the trade deadline, he was traded to the Florida Panthers for forward Tyler Smilanic, a first-round pick, and a fourth-round pick. The Panthers paid the steep price and were eventually swept by their state rivals, the Lightning, in the second round. Many hockey pundits were quick to point to Chiarot as a part of the issue — not that he played particularly bad, but mostly because he didn’t live up to the expectations of a player that cost as much as he did on the trade market.
Chiarot Played a Big Role in the Canadiens’ Cup Run In 2021
Yet, in order to get a good analysis of a player, there needs to be a fine balance between the analytics and the seeing eye test. In 20 regular-season games with the Panthers, he posted positive analytics in some categories. According to Natural Stat Trick, he recorded a 58.06% Corsi (CF%), 60.97% SF% (the percentage of total shots while that player is on the ice), and 62.43% HDCF (high danger scoring chances when the player is on the ice). Also, before being traded, Sportsnet Eric Engels wrote an article giving praise to Chiarot. He spoke of his on-ice play during the 2020 Playoffs in the Toronto bubble:
“I was in the stands at Scotiabank Arena, and I watched him physically abuse the Pittsburgh Penguins and Flyers away from the puck. Every time Sidney Crosby or Sean Couturier got within a stick length of Chiarot, they noticed him, too. He crosschecked them, punched them, leaned on them, hit them and just played the intimidating brand of hockey that playoffs are made of. He made an impression on everyone in attendance—not just on media, but on the Canadiens’ personnel and on that of their opposition.”
He also added that the 31-year-old defenseman played a massive role in helping the Canadiens get to the Stanley Cup Final, and that’s when a lot of people started to take notice of him.
Why Should the Oilers Pursue Chiarot?
Chiarot brings valuable playoff experience, which Edmonton needs more of, especially with an expectation for the Oilers to push beyond the Western Conference Final in the coming years. Additionally, with the departure of Kassian, and the uncertainty of Evander Kane returning to the Oilers, the team needs more grit and nastiness in the lineup, and Chiarot brings exactly that. Taking a look at their lineup, the only other player that can bring an “in-your-face” style of play is number one defenseman, Darnell Nurse, but with his $9.25 million AAV set to kick in next season, the Oilers need to extract the most usage out of him and can’t risk having him in the penalty box.
Chiarot, who averaged 22:51 in ice time last season, is no stranger to the fisticuffs with nine career NHL fights. Since he plays more minutes than say, a fourth-line pugilist, there’s a higher chance he’ll be on the ice if teams take liberties against the Oilers’ skilled players and he’ll readily be able to come to their aid. Also, he can be the big-bodied defender that can help break up the cycle in the defensive zone. Again, that’s an element that was missing on the blue line for the Oilers since Larsson left for the Kraken.
Hypothetically, if Chiarot’s former Canadiens teammate, Kulak, returns to Edmonton next season, I can imagine a scenario where the Oilers could interchange Chiarot and Kulak as the second and third left-pairing defenders, depending on which player has the hot hand. Additionally, if he slots in on the second pairing, he would be an ideal complementary partner for Evan Bouchard, with him as the stay-at-home defender and Bouchard as the main puck distributor on the line.
Chiarot received criticism for his ineffectiveness in the Panther’s playoff drive, but it’s also important to remember that he was only 20 games in with a new team, and not every player can have a smooth adjustment to team systems. In fact, the scrutiny he received could work against him in contract negotiations, which could give the Oilers the advantage of “buying low”. Overall, he would be a quality pickup if Edmonton can sign him in the range of $4 million AAV.
What do you think Oilers fans? Would Chiarot be a good fit in Edmonton? Comment below.
He’s the first ever Ultimate MVP fan of the NHL as declared by Upperdeck – He’s been featured on CBC Radio providing hockey analysis for the Edmonton Oilers – He’s a freelance writer and Edmonton Oilers’ Sportswriter for the Hockey Writers.