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The Trade Deadline’s Most Sought-After Player Is Also Its Worst

MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 29: Ben Chiarot #8 of the Montreal Canadiens goes through his pregame ritual during warmups against the Edmonton Oilers at Centre Bell on January 29, 2022 in Montreal, Canada. The Edmonton Oilers defeated the Montreal Canadiens 7-2. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

At first glance, it makes sense. The Florida Panthers, one of the small handful of teams with realistic Cup hopes, went out and got defenseman Ben Chiarot in a trade with Montreal on Wednesday. The Habs weren’t going anywhere; Chiarot is a pending free agent; the Panthers have a hole on defense. Chiarot has been, for months now, the most talked-about trade target in the league, or at least the most obvious. Every contender has been linked to him in rumors at one time or another. He was going to go somewhere, and given the competition, he wasn’t going to come cheap. What the Panthers paid for him—a first-round pick next year, a fourth-round pick this year, and a mid-tier forward prospect in Tyler Smilanic—was the going rate. But one thing makes this deal feel a little different from so many other deadline deals with similar narratives: There’s good reason to think that Chiarot may, uh, be very bad at hockey.

Chiarot is, to put it in plain terms, a 30-year-old, big, physical, left-shooting defenseman, who happens to have the single worst WAR of any player in the NHL this season. WAR isn’t necessarily a telling or settled metric in hockey yet, but by any metric you care to use, he’s been utterly awful. Sub–replacement level. The numbers say the Panthers could’ve plugged in an AHL call-up on their blue line and been better off than with Chiarot. The dissonance between how the stats see him and how GMs apparently see him feels like a conflict from another era, a last battle in a war between analytics and eye testers that I thought had been pretty well settled in favor of the former.

It’s easy to see what older-school GMs and/or/especially the Panthers see in Chiarot. He had a standout postseason during the Canadiens’ magical run last year, which always gets personnel guys’ motors running, and makes him an attractive veteran rental for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996. He’ll score some goals. He’s a large guy who blocks shots and lays hits, both useful things but also extremely visible things. He’s easy to sell.

“Ben is a solid veteran defenseman that will bring both experience and size to our blue line,” Panthers GM Bill Zito said. “Having reached the Stanley Cup Final with Montreal last season, he is a player that knows what it takes to make a deep playoff run, which is what our organization is striving for in these next few months.”

Then there’s the other side of the coin, the Ben Chiarot who’s been an utter disaster of a defender, especially at 5-on-5. The Habs get thoroughly out-chanced with him on the ice—his possession stats are putrid even compared to his Montreal teammates, who haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory this year either—and it’s been that way no matter who he’s been paired with.

So much of how you view Chiarot’s value depends on how you decide to view the two chapters of his career: alongside Shea Weber and otherwise. Chiarot’s numbers were perfectly fair right up until this season, his first not paired with an elite player. The Panthers are hoping it’s this year that’s the aberration, that the Canadiens’ general suckiness has infected him, and that giving him a change of scenery and more talented teammates will do him good. That’s all plausible. It’s more likely that Chiarot’s previously respectable performance was the result of him getting carried.

The good news for the Panthers is that they’re as equipped as anyone to carry a player. Their offense is fantastic, and Chiarot will no longer be asked to anchor a top pairing; Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar are among the best in the business, and they’ll play commensurately heavy minutes come the playoffs. It’s a little muddier after that, but for now Chiarot should slot in on the third pairing, partnering with Steve Montour. A lot of weaknesses can be hidden on a third pairing, and behind an offense that’s scoring better than four goals a game. If a contender simply had to go out and add Ben Chiarot, the Panthers have the best situation for him to step into.

So … maybe it’ll be fine! Maybe he’ll have limited minutes and be able to avoid opponents’ scoring lines and maybe he really will be a big, physical presence in the back and a voice of experience in the dressing room. But also maybe he’ll take some backbreaking penalties—he frickin’ loves to take penalties—or get absolutely dusted in a late-game situation, and we’ll again wonder why the Panthers paid for much for Chiarot when the Avs just got a better defenseman in Josh Manson, for cheaper. It’s the Duality of Ben.

Anyway, good trade for Montreal.