Last summer, the Montreal Canadiens made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Finals but this year was much, much different. After losing the first five games of the season and off to an 2-8 start, defenseman Ben Chiarot heard his name in trade rumors during the first month.
While he admits the rumor buzz “kind of got in my head and was a bit miserable” at times during what had been a depressing season for the Canadiens, he does not have to hear them any more.
On Wednesday night, the Florida Panthers pulled off one of the early big deals before Monday’s NHL Trade Deadline, acquiring Chiarot from the Canadiens for a package of draft picks and prospect Ty Smilanic.
Due to U.S. work visa issues, Chiarot may not be able to meet his new teammates until they coincidentally fly up to play the Canadiens next week, but he sounds ready to get back after chasing that Cup after his Canadiens’ Cinderella run ended in a Finals loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I think experience is huge. Once you get to that stage — conference finals, the Finals — you’re under a pretty big spotlight and the intensity ramps up as each round goes on,” said Chiarot, speaking to the South Florida media for the first time since the deal.
“To have been there and experienced it, I think it’s a big plus.”
Although a number of NHL pundits claim Florida overpaid in the deal for Chiarot — the Panthers gave up a 2023 first-round pick as well as the fourth-round selection in 2022 earlier acquired from the Rangers — general manager Bill Zito said the Panthers got the player they were targeting for some time.
As depressing as Montreal’s season had been (things have picked up since Martin St. Louis was named coach last month), knowing Chiarot would be dealt allowed the Panthers to do their due diligence on the player knowing it would not be for naught if his team decided to try and stay in the race.
The Canadiens’ playoff chances, to be fair, were done in November.
The Florida Panthers opens up a lot of possibilities.
“We will have to see when he gets here,” Zito said. “We have a real nice environment to play. We have a very welcoming room, a friendly bunch of guys. There are no egos. Our coaching staff basically demands you work hard and play. Enjoy the game.
“We have a range of different personalities and player types who have been able to come here and find success because of that. There’s no reason to believe Ben can’t come here and really enjoy hockey and being part of the group.”
For Chiarot, coming to the Panthers is more than just a tropical change-of-scenery.
After a season of trudging along on a dreadful team — the Canadiens have been hit with injuries and front office shakeups — he now gets a chance to chase the dream in South Florida.
The Panthers were looking for a hard-nosed left-handed defenseman to potentially split up Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar, giving the Panthers more defensive strength down the line.
Last year, with Ekblad hurt, Weegar thrived playing on the right side of the top pairing as it played to his natural right-handed strength.
Chiarot could find himself on the top pair with Ekblad — or Gus Forsling could move up and Weegar may go with Chiarot.
Regardless, the Florida coaching staff now has some pretty good options once Chiarot steps on the ice.
“I am very excited. This is a chance to win,” Chiarot said. “That is what every player wants. This is a team who has been at the top of the standings basically since the start of the season. Since the get-go, they have been a powerhouse team. I’m excited to join them and looking forward to joining the team.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
- When: Thursday, 10:30 p.m.
- Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
- Tickets: CLICK HERE
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM, SiriusXM
- Draft Kings odds — Florida favored: Money Line (-170); Puck line (-1.5, +145); Over/Under 6.5 (-110/-110)
- Last season: Did not play
- All-time regular season series: Vegas leads 4-2-1
- Season Series — Florida leads 1-0: @Florida 4, Vegas 1 (Jan. 27)