What made Chiarot worth a first-round pick for the Panthers? ‘We needed a guy like that’

By at least one metric, Ben Chiarot has been the single worst player in the NHL this year. By a handful of others, the defenseman has simply been one of the worst.

The Florida Panthers are betting those metrics are wrong — or, at least, whatever is wrong with Chiarot will be fixed by going the worst team in the Eastern Conference to the best — and his impressive play during the Montreal Canadiens’ run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals is more indicative of the player he actually is. They wouldn’t have given up a first-round pick to get him if they didn’t think so.

“I’ve seen him play so much,” interim coach Andrew Brunette said Thursday, “kind of exactly the player we were looking for and really good defensively.”

Chiarot, despite ranking dead last in wins above replacement this season, wound up being one of the most expensive acquisitions ahead of the trade deadline. Last Wednesday, the Panthers (42-14-6) sent a 2023 first-round pick, a 2022 fourth-round pick and prospect Ty Smilanic to the Canadiens (17-36-10) to land the 30-year-old Canadian.

Florida desperately needed to find a sixth everyday defenseman — it has been a revolving door next to defenseman Brandon Montour on the third pairing — was one of the most accomplished on the market, despite his underwhelming season.

He led Montreal in average time on ice during the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs — there’s one reason general manager Bill Zito wanted him. He has more blocked shots and hits than all but two Panthers — there’s another. Florida also badly wanted to find a left-handed defenseman — which Chiarot is — and a good locker presence, which he also is, by all accounts.

Coincidentally, the Panthers will get their first real look at him against his former team Thursday when they face the Canadiens at 7 p.m. at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

“We were keen on adding specifics: the right person, as well as the right position,” Zito said Thursday. “He can crunch big minutes, he has the ability in the defensive zone to get to pucks, he has the size-strength element that lend to defensive pressure, he can move a puck. ... He tends to rally the troops, if you will, with his energy and his infectious competitiveness when he plays, so there’s a lot of different things that he does that may not show up on the score sheet, but would help our group and help bring out the best.

“It’s a team. He’s one of five guys.”

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As good as the Panthers’ league-best offense has been, they only rank 12th in goals against per game and give up the 10th most high-danger chances per 60 minutes.

For most of the season, Florida has emphasized offense from its defense, leading to 20-point seasons for Aaron Ekblad, MacKenzie Weegar, Brandon Montour and Gustav Forsling. Chiarot, the Panthers hope, will bring more two-way balance to their defense, especially with Ekblad on long-term injured reserve and likely out for the rest of the regular season with a right-knee injury.

“He’s a defenseman that plays hard,” All-Star left wing Jonathan Huberdeau said Thursday. “We needed a guy like that.”

Florida is also in a position where it pays to overpay. After putting together the best regular season in franchise history last year, the Panthers have the best record in the East, the second best record in the NHL and the best goal differential in the league. They’re a no-brainer Stanley Cup contender with a chance to win the Presidents’ Trophy, too. For a franchise without a Cup or even a single postseason-series victory since 1996, Florida is in the middle of a truly unprecedented window.

It’s why the Panthers traded their 2022 first-round pick for forward Sam Reinhart last year and their 2024 first-round pick for All-Star forward Claude Giroux on Saturday. Their five best skaters — Ekblad, Weegar, Huberdeau, Reinhart and star center Aleksander Barkov — are all in their prime, between 26-28. Florida might never have a better shot.

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Unless it gets an even better one next year, that is. Part of the reason the Panthers could afford to trade their next three first-round picks is the infrastructure Zito has built up since taking over in 2020. Those five are all under team control through next year and all but Huberdeau are locked up through the following season, too, as are six of Florida’s seven next most productive scorers.

“We’ve been fortunate with some of the players that we were able to acquire at lesser costs,” Zito said. “We’re going to have to continue to scout, we’re going to have to continue to find players ... and it’s incumbent upon us to do so. We have a plan and some ideas moving forward of what we need to do.”