Ben Chiarot’s first-year progression or: Why we need to be patient with new players

The defenceman brought one set of neutral-zone rules with him from Winnipeg, and spent the 2020-21 season unlearning all of it.

When I first heard the news of the Montreal Canadiens’ signing of Ben Chiarot, I was skeptical. While the defenceman established himself as a solid presence next to Dustin Byfuglien with the Winnipeg Jets, Chiarot was not driving the play on that pairing. In his years with the western team, he acted as the anchor for his loose but offensive gifted partner. But in Montreal, a team that already possessed its share of shutdown defenders, I worried that the ex-Jet would only drag down the Habs’ offence.

Fast forward a year and we see that those concerns were largely unfounded. While calling Chiarot creative remains a stretch, his skating ability helped him push the Habs up-ice and find shooting lanes in the offensive zone, and his pairing with Shea Weber has been one of the more effective on the team.

Still, the acquisition didn’t look as bright in its early days. The first few weeks of Chiarot in bleu, blanc, et rouge raised questions. His main strength, defence, inexplicably became a weakness; the defencemen slid out of position and made dangerous decisions. An adjustment period is always expected when a player joins a new team, but players can usually bounce from one organization to the next without having to relearn their trade.

I didn’t fully understand what happened to Chiarot in those first games, but in the last few weeks as I binge-watched games in a quest to better understand transition defence, something clicked. In the plain and all-too-similar landscape of NHL systems, Winnipeg’s stood out.

The team employs a wide-lane-lock system in the neutral zone, a strategy that is quite different from the ones used by the Canadiens and most other formations. When I searched for a confirmation that the Jets did in fact use that tactic, I stumbled upon an article from Eric Engels in which Chiarot talked about the Jets and the adjustments he had to make playing for the Canadiens.

“Here we have our defencemen stay between the dots. I’m used to being able to … when I saw the puck coming up D-to-D and up my side of the ice, I was able to step right up and into the opposing winger. There was a point in the Toronto game where I stepped right up in the neutral zone and though we had guys back they weren’t expecting me to step up aggressive like that. That’s an adjustment: not feeling like I can jump that winger and knowing I’ve got to stay in a more defensive posture.”

The defenceman explains the system of his former team quite well.

In the neutral zone, the Jets, like the Habs, use an F1 forechecker to stir the play to one side of the ice and an F2 forechecker to pressure the puck on the other when the F1 guides it there. But in a wide-lane lock, the forward skating the furthest from the puck-carrier (F3) retreats to the back of the neutral zone. He takes his place in the wide corridor on the side opposite to the puck, joining his defenceman to form a wall. The three lined-up players can pinch aggressively on attackers coming their way. They establish a strong gap, close all skating space, and prevent access to the defensive end.

The first couple of months of Chiarot’s season featured many weird, poorly timed pinches,  but he was conditioned to make them. After six years spent playing a system that favoured relentless aggression on the part of the defencemen, it took a little while for him to synchronize himself to his new team.

The following videos compare the Habs’ neutral-zone system to the one of the Jets. At the end of the first one, Chiarot’s auto-pilot kicked in. He decided to launch himself at an attacker receiving a pass on the neutral-zone wall instead of backing off between the dots — the Canadiens’ way of defending. He didn’t realize he lacked the necessary backup to pinch this way. Jeff Petry had backed up to the defensive zone and Jesperi Kotkaniemi didn’t move to Chiarot’s side quickly enough to cover. The play turned into a great scoring chance for Toronto Maple Leafs.

In the second video, you can see the rest of that shift. Auston Matthews missed his scoring chance and the Habs skated the other way, dumping the puck into the offensive zone. As the Leafs organized their breakouth, they faced two Canadiens forecheckers and Jonathan Drouin lurking on the other side of the ice. As Drouin was about to cut laterally to join his teammate to support their pressure, a 6’3” battering ram flashed before his eyes.

Chiarot charged down the wall without warning, skating past the top of the circles and sliding below the dot.  He aimed to knock the puck away from William Nylander on the wall, but the disc never made it to the winger, who turned away from contact. The Leafs then escaped the zone using the space behind Chiarot. Fortunately, Drouin adjusted his course in time to cover for his teammate, and the Leafs were also at the end of their shift.

At the NHL level, everything is a split-second decision, and very often there is no time to think at all. Habits take over.

We are sometimes guilty of judging new acquisitions too quickly (myself included). On top of having to fit inside the team’s chemistry, traded or newly signed players sometimes lose their bearings on the ice as they adjust to a new system. It can take a little while for them to reform habits. When they do, it frees them to expand their game and show their full effectiveness. We saw it with Chiarot, and we will likely see it with some of the new acquisitions this fall.

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