There has been no shortage of surprises early in this Winnipeg Jets season.
Patrik Laine moving all over the lineup and eventually settling on an unlikely line with Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev. Backup goalie Laurent Brossoit looking sensational in winning every game he’s started so far. Marko Dano getting claimed by Colorado after being put on waivers. A nearly unprecedented parade to the penalty box in Nashville. An ugly late-game meltdown in Toronto.
Such is life in the NHL, where the best-laid plans often have to be changed on the fly. Expect the unexpected.
Which brings us to Ben Chiarot, who many pundits (myself included) figured would be hard-pressed to earn a regular job this season. And yet here we are in mid-November, with the Jets looking every bit like a Stanley Cup contender and Chiarot playing a key top-four role on the blue line.
Raise your hand if you saw this coming. Not you, Ben.
“It’s been a nice change to this year and something I’ve looked forward to. And something I’ve known I can do for a long time,” Chiarot said Wednesday following the morning skate at Bell MTS Place.
Toby Enstrom’s departure created an open competition for a critical role, one that very few expected Chiarot to fill. Heck, even his coach clearly didn’t, as Paul Maurice initially tried moving veteran Tyler Myers off his traditional right side to play with Big Buff during the pre-season.
That was, to put it mildly, a disaster. It was a square peg in a round hole. It was New Coke-bad.
Next up was journeyman Joe Morrow, who showed some chemistry playing with Byfuglien after joining the Jets last season at the trade deadline. Many fans were clamouring for AHL defenceman of the year Sami Niku to get chance, especially when the speedy, skilled Finn had a strong training camp.
And yet it was Chiarot, who had spent the first seven years of his pro career as a fringe NHLer, left standing once the puck dropped for real in early October. Chiarot has already tied his career high with two goals, and also has a pair of helpers in 16 games entering Wednesday night’s contest with Washington. He’s plus-three and has 26 penalty minutes. And his partner, Byfuglien, has been a difference-maker in many games.
“There’s a block of hockey now that he’s played that we’re really hopeful that he’s defined (as) his game,” Maurice said.
“He’s been very, very consistent. He’s a strong, powerful man, he’s made quick reads, so he’s getting to the people he needs to get to. He’s got good enough hands to make those inside plays, but he’s kept that part simple. He’s moved the puck simply.”
One of the best compliments you can pay a stay-at-home defenceman is that you don’t really notice when he’s on the ice. And that would be an accurate way to summarize Chiarot’s play this year. The 27 year old has quietly been quite effective, limiting the glaring errors that tend to land you in the coach’s doghouse.
Sure, there was one in the fourth game of the year in Nashville, when he tried to send a pass to Byfuglien only to have it picked off by Ryan Hartman, who scored on the ensuing breakaway. But since then it’s been steady as she goes for Chiarot.
“I think when (Maurice) put the two of us together, we’re two guys that like to play a pretty heavy game. So we can make it pretty uncomfortable for the other team’s lines to come against two guys that like to play physical like Buff and I,” Chiarot said.
“Obviously he has great offensive skill and I’m more defensive minded, so it kinda works. We kinda complement each other nicely.
“(Byfuglien) roams around a bit. But I think that’s OK because I’m pretty positional and sit back more so than run up. I’m always going to be back for him 99 per cent of the time. I want him to be the one going up and joining the rush because he’s got such great offensive skill. I just play somewhat centre-field when he does that and be back for him. It’s worked out well. I love playing with him and I know he’s comfortable playing with me.”
Maurice admitted Enstrom and Chiarot are very different types of players. But they do share at least one quality, according to the coach.
“So there’s a chemistry built that would be similar. Buff and Toby had a very predictable game when they played with each other and he’s starting to find that with Ben as well,” said Maurice.
Byfuglien’s physical game is well-known, and you just have to look at last Sunday’s game against New Jersey for a prime example. He sent six-foot-six, 245-pound Brian Boyle flying with a huge hit that has now landed the veteran Devils forward on the injured reserve list.
Chiarot said there are many times he’s on the ice with Byfuglien when he’s glad to be playing with him, rather than against him.
“He’s unique. There’s no one in the league quite like him. Maybe like an Eric Lindros, is the closest thing I can come to. He kind of makes grown men look like little kids out there. Just tossing them around”, said Chiarot.
“He’s one of the best players in the world. I know some people go back and forth on the risks he takes versus what he creates. But for me, being his partner, I wouldn’t want him any other way. He creates so much offensively. Defensively he puts the fear of God in other team’s lines. You see guys don’t want to go in the corner with him or come down his side. He’s a fun guy to play with, a fun guy to watch.”
Of course, nothing is permanent in the NHL and it’s possible Chiarot is merely a placeholder until an even better fit can be found. With Dmitry Kulikov sidelined at least a month with injury, Niku is now up from the Manitoba Moose and waiting for his opportunity. I’d love to see the 22 year old get an extended look with Byfuglien at some point this season. In the one regular-season game in which they played together — Niku’s debut — the dynamic young Finn scored a goal.
For what it’s worth, Chiarot was quick to reject any suggestion Wednesday that he’s now arrived as a full-time NHL player. A guy used to fighting for his spot in the lineup isn’t about to take anything for granted. Nor should he.
“I don’t look at it like that. We’ve got six guys, or seven, eight guys that can play. My role with Buff, it’s a good role for me to have. We play in the offensive zone more, being with him. We play against better players, which I like to do, and top lines. So it’s a lot more fun for me than the role I’ve had in the last two years, playing shorter minutes or against lower lines,” said Chiarot.
“Paul saw that we’d be a good pair and a pair that could be tough to play against for other team’s top lines. Two physical guys. It’s worked out nicely. I’m happy with how the season’s gone so far.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.