Panthers hoping Chiarot acquisition adds relief to blue line

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Panthers are piling up big numbers this season. Lots of goals, lots of wins, lots of points.

And in a couple cases, lots of minutes.

That’s one of the reasons why the Panthers acquired defenseman Ben Chiarot from the Montreal Canadiens as the trade deadline looms. Not only is he proven and playoff-tested, but he should be able to immediately give Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar a bit more of a breather down the stretch of the regular season.

“It’s no secret that our top defensemen right now are logging big minutes,” Panthers GM Bill Zito said. “And certainly, I think, the addition of Ben can help lessen those minutes, spread them out and hopefully add some collective energy to our entire D corps.”

Entering Thursday, Ekblad was fourth in the NHL in total minutes played this season with 1,491, Weegar 15th with 1,406. The Panthers — who started Thursday second in the NHL with 88 points, behind only Colorado’s 91 — are the only team in the league to have a pair of players log so much ice time so far.

Chiarot is used to that sort of workload. The left-shooting defenseman was averaging 23:33 of ice time per game for Montreal this season and had more minutes than any other Canadiens skater during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final last season.

“I’m confident in what I do and what I bring to a team,” Chiarot said.

And he’s heading to a Florida team that’s all-in on Stanley Cup aspirations this year, one on pace to smash the franchise record for goals and points in a season — and finally end the drought that the club has long been tired of hearing about, that being how it hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996.

“The Panthers have been one of the top teams all year,” Chiarot said. “As we showed here last year, you get into the playoffs, anything’s possible. You just have to get in and Florida’s done that and more. They have a powerful team and they have as good a chance as anyone.”

The 30-year-old Chiarot had seven goals and 11 assists for the Canadiens this season and was one of the more talked-about names on the NHL trade market in recent weeks.

“We started the process a while ago,” Zito said. “And we were keen on adding specifics, the right person as well as the right position. We did want to target a left shot if it was possible, but it was more than simply ‘Oh, let’s go find a left D.’ We wanted to find the right other characteristics that would fit and mesh with our team.”

Chiarot’s trade seemed imminent in the last few days — “We kind of knew this was coming since early this year,” he said — with the Canadiens mired at the bottom of the NHL. He told the Panthers after the deal got done that he’d been doing research on Florida, just in case.

“I loved being a Montreal Canadien,” Chiarot said. “The city, the Bell Centre, living in Montreal, all of it, the whole package. It’s a great place to be a hockey player and for the rest of my life I’ll be happy that I played here.”

The Panthers are open to keeping Chiarot after this season; the free-agent-to-be said he hasn’t thought that far yet.

“Right now, just focused on getting ready for the playoffs,” Chiarot said. His U.S. work visa still needs to be worked out and his debut with Florida might not come until next week, the likely target ironically being when the Panthers visit Montreal on March 24.

With the trade deadline not until Monday, and with Florida having cap space left, it’s entirely possible that the team’s playoff-push shopping doesn’t end with Chiarot.

“We’re investigating. We’re still investigating,” Zito said. “We’re working pretty much anything and everything until the deadline. That’s our job. So, we’re going to continue to listen and investigate every way we can to make our team better.”

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