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A tale of two towers: Ben Chiarot offers a reason to view the Joel Edmundson acquisition positively

His predecessor’s success has expanded Edmundson’s chance of finding a niche on the team.

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“[…] is not an upgrade [on the third pairing].”

“Is [he] better than Karl Alzner?” “No.”

“[…] a bad player on an expensive contract with term.”

Why?

No, they’re not talking about Joel Edmundson, recently signed to a four-year, $14 million contract by Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin. These comments were made in July, 2019 after the acquisition of Ben Chiarot.

Looking closer, there are so many similarities between Chiarot and Edmundson that one could easily lose track of which player they are talking about. Both signed contracts with identical $3.5-million AAVs and 10-team no-trade clauses. Both players are defence-first physical presences not known for offensive or transition contributions. They came with worrying underlying analytic metrics. Both players faced issues with usage, tactics, deployment, and overall fit on their previous teams.

Curiously though, despite watching Chiarot gradually morph into a player unrecognizable from his Winnipeg days and cement his place in the Canadiens’ top four, the conversation surrounding Edmundson continues to use Alzner as the comparable; a distinctly gloomy outlook.

Setting aside the notion that Chiarot’s success was either a fluke — not replicable — or fool’s gold — not sustainable (which would make Bergevin’s pursuit acquisition of Edmundson misguided folly) — one reason for this pessimism might be because the two players arrive with distinctly different sets of expectations.

When Chiarot was signed, very few considered him a possible partner for Shea Weber because Chiarot had not demonstrated any great sign, whether through analytics or the eye-test, of puck-moving acumen. Since Brett Kulak and Jeff Petry were supposedly entrenched on the second pairing, the thought was that Chiarot was a somewhat expensive but not bank-breaking option for the third pairing that may be able to move up the lineup in a pinch.

In contrast, Edmundson is not only joining a Habs’ blue line with an established top-four unit that just performed well on the ice against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, he has been recruited to break up that unit. In contrast to Chiarot, who simply had to be better than Mikey Reilly and the departed Jordie Benn, Edmundson will undoubtedly receive the blame if the second pairing falters early on next season.

To compound matters, Chiarot joined a Habs team with no particular ambitions. If Chiarot flopped, that would simply help the Canadiens on the road to another high draft pick to add to then-sophomore Jesperi Kotkaniemi and then-rookie Nick Suzuki. However, after 10 games in the bubble, the perception now has shifted toward maximizing what is left of Carey Price’s and Shea Weber’s windows. The fanbase has a reduced appetite for moves that, should they fail, might result in lost seasons.

But Edmundson does not have to replicate Chiarot’s success in order to be regarded as a success. Indeed, Chiarot’s ascension up the pecking order gives Edmundson more leash. The new signee has an opportunity to prove himself as Petry’s partner. Should that fail, the Canadiens (barring a trade) can return to the Kulak-Petry partnership and use Edmundson on a third pairing that was seen as a weak link in the bubble.

While Edmundson himself may not be particularly thrilled with a third-pairing and penalty-kill-specialist role, he could fill a gap that has existed since Benn left, and help stabilize a team prone to wild momentum swings during the regular season for years. Ironically, it is entirely possible that Edmundson’s niche in Montreal will be the role that Chiarot was originally acquired to fill. And that, while not optimal, will work out just fine.