“I’m going to be honest, I don’t understand a lot of the analytics side of it,” veteran defenseman says

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One of the main focuses for new Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes is to build a strong analytics department.

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He also wants to improve player development, along with Jeff Gorton, the new executive director of hockey operations.

Both of those things were highlighted in the decision to trade defenseman Ben Chiarot to the Florida Panthers Wednesday night in exchange for a first-round pick at next year’s NHL Draft, a fourth-round pick this year and 20-year-old forward prospect Ty Smilinic.

Chiarot is not an “analytics darling” as Hughes put it Thursday when he met with the media at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard. But the departure of the 6-foot-3, 234-pound defenseman who led the Canadiens in ice time (averaging 23:33 per game) leaves a big hole on the blue line.

Hughes believes some of the young defense prospects the Canadiens have can help fill that hole in the future. They include Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj, jordan harris (if he signs after his Northeastern University season ends) and Jayden Struble.

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“Whether we need to do something on an interim basis until they’re ready to play, we’ll make that decision at the end of the year,” Hughes said.

When asked about analytics and how they don’t favor Chiarot, Hughes said: “I’m a big believer in having information. I don’t think information is a substitute for your eye. And information or analytics is not in my opinion — as we move forward with that department of hockey ops — it won’t be exclusively for us to evaluate hockey players. It will be for our coaching staff, it will be for our development group, it will be for our strength and performance group. It’s all of them, the information to be able to allow you to do what we’re doing and how we can do it better and we’ll use it.

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“There’s so many factors I feel that can’t be controlled,” the GM added. “To me, whoever got Ben Chiarot was taking a big step forward in their chance to win the Stanley Cup. To the extent that he’s not an analytics darling, to me he’s a pretty effective hockey player and he’s going to help a team in the playoffs.”

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There’s no analytics stat to measure the fear an opposing forward has going into the corners against Chiarot — especially in Games 5, 6 and 7 of a playoff series. Chiarot’s physical style of play is built for the playoffs and he played a key role in the Canadiens’ trip to the Stanley Cup final last season, averaging a team-high 25:15 of ice time.

“The whole analytics thing, people can have their opinions,” Chiarot said Thursday. “I know what I do on the ice and I think guys that I play with and against can vouch for that. I’m going to be honest, I don’t understand a lot of the analytics side of it — I probably should understand it a little bit better — but it is what it is. I’m confident in what I do and what I bring to a team. That’s all I really have on that. I think analytics tells a part of the story, but it’s a small fraction of what goes on the ice.”

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The Panthers have the second-best record in the NHL (41-13-6 heading into Thursday night’s game in Las Vegas) and Chiarot will definitely help them.

“As of yesterday, we felt that was without question the best deal that we could do,” Hughes said about the trade with the Panthers. “Could we have waited and possibly had a better deal? Who knows. I think you go into free agency on the player side and you could wait and maybe end up with a better deal, maybe you end up with a lesser deal. You don’t know. Circumstances change from day to day with injuries and things of that nature. But we’re happy with the trade and I think it makes Florida a much better hockey team at the same time. At the end of the day, if every trade you do works out for both teams, I think that’s the perfect situation.”

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The Canadiens now hold two first-round picks for this year’s NHL Draft as a result of trading Tyler Toffoli to the Calgary Flames last month, and two more next year after trading Chiarot. The Canadiens will pay half of what’s left of Chiarot’s US$3.5-million salary this season as part of the trade.

In the Toffoli trade, Hughes added a fifth-round pick in 2023, forward Tyler Pitlick and Emil Heinman, a 20-year-old forward prospect now playing in the Swedish Hockey League. Smilanic now joins the Canadiens’ prospect pool in the Chiarot trade.

Hughes said the 6-foot-1, 177-pound Smilanic is a smart, fast player who can score and fits into the style of play the Canadiens have had since Martin St. Louis took over from Dominique Ducharme as head coach last month. In 38 games this season with Quinnipiac University, Smilanic has 13-9-22 totals.

“We’ve seen a lot of him,” Hughes said. “He made the US world junior team, so we thought he was a good prospect to add and he brought the qualities that we were looking for.”

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