After a preseason game against the Calgary Flames last week, Comets coach (and temporary Canucks bench boss) Trent Cull said something that caught me by surprise:
“Every time I see [Chatfield] play, he scores. He seems like a kid, if I get a chance to coach him, I’ll be excited to have him.”
If that first part is truly the case, Chatfield should be pretty excited to have Cull as a coach in Utica this season too, in his rookie professional campaign.
It’s not that Cull is entirely incorrect: Chatfield has a goal in each of his two preseason games with the Canucks (to go with three assists), each coached by Cull. He was also productive in the Young Stars tournament in Penticton, where he was also coached by Cull. All told, Chatfield has tallied three goals and six points in just 4 games under Cull’s purview. He also scored at the Canucks Summer Showcase to boot.
— Ryan Biech (@ryanbiech) September 23, 2017
So Cull does have a point. The reason it’s surprising? Offence hasn’t traditionally been a mainstay in Chatfield’s game. Even as an overager in OHL Windsor last season, he had but 8 goals in 60 games. His career high was 10 the season before, and in 205 career OHL games (including playoffs and the Memorial Cup tournament), he scored 21 goals.
When we look at junior prospects and try to predict how they’ll perform in the NHL, we look foremost at offence. As a general rule, even the stay at home defencemen in the NHL put up big numbers in junior; the elite simply set themselves apart.
Chatfield’s numbers never inspired that kind of objective certainty. Upon the news of his signing, we checked our models of course, to see how he performed, and they didn’t provide much optimism. Even when we checked contextual factors like ice time and teammates, they didn’t provide an excuse. Chatfield played a lot, and frequently with Mikhail Sergachev, a top flight OHL defenceman. One would think that would afford bloated offensive numbers, but it hadn’t. If we were to go strictly by points (and I should note, we don’t), Chatfield’s outlook as an NHL player might look a little bleak, and not just using this past season.
Happily, there’s more to hockey that just putting up points, as long as your affecting the game in other positive ways. We could tell early on, as Windsor took on the London Knights in the opening round of the OHL playoffs, that despite what the numbers were telling us, Chatfield was a strong bet to make.
#Canucks fans who were distressed by the Jalen Chatfield signing should really watch this London-Windsor game. Kid can play.
— J.D. Burke (@JDylanBurke) March 26, 2017
Despite the offensive showing here in Canucks colours, goal scoring and general point-getting has typically been a bonus to the well rounded two-way game that he’s better known for. Chatfield has a bit of flash to his game: he’s got wheels and likes to carry the puck when the mood strikes. He’s got a bit of that “swashbuckler” in him that John Tortorella branded on Kevin Bieksa. Let’s all remember that, an one point, Kevin Bieksa was a very valuable NHL defenceman.
The cerebral and positional side of his game needs to be celebrated as well though. He is consistently in the right spot, makes calm and efficient moves in his own zone to advance the play, and maintains appropriate gaps in defence of his own blue line.
Chatfield’s well rounded game earned him a lot of responsibility from Spitfires head coach Rocky Thompson (who has since been hired to run the AHL’s Chicago Wolves), which manifested itself in a whole ton of ice time. Here you can see an estimated version of time on ice climbing steadily over the course of the season from top four pairing minutes to true workhorse minutes.
Chatfield’s individual offence didn’t really increase as his ice time did unfortunately, and his on-ice goal share began to dip from above 60% to around 55%, it’s impressive that the Spitfires’ goal differential with him on the ice stayed in the black even as he was approaching an estimated 30 minutes in ice time.
While it would be nice if Chatfield was in on more of the goals, the fact that his team is scoring so many goals when he is on the ice is promising.
During his two preseason games, the Canucks controlled 54.9% of shot attempts taken while Chatfield was on the ice, and 62.5% of goals scored. That shot share is among the best for a Canucks defenceman so far, and, beneficially, it tops the percentages currently owned by many young defenders that he’ll be competing against for a call up, including Jordan Subban, Evan McEneny, Andrey Pedan, and Guillaume Brisebois. It’s also impressive that he maintained this level without any sheltering at all: his zone starts have been dead even, and he spent more time on the ice against Leon Draisaitl than any other Oiler in last week’s game in Edmonton.
It’s a small sample size, but it’s still a nice early indicator that what we was able to do in junior has been carried forward. Even if this burst of offence doesn’t persist, there’s still a lot of value in what he’s able to do. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think of him as a lite version of Chris Tanev, at least in terms of the results if not stylistically. It took the NHL a long time to appreciate Tanev’s value, be he is now regarded as a true top pairing defenceman despite his lack of offence. I don’t think Chatfield will reach Tanev-level heights in terms of shot suppression, but his offensive upside may be superior in its stead.
I don’t think that Chatfield should be a serious contender to make the team out of camp this season. Unlike the last two defenceman that earned roster spots with surprisingly strong training camps (those being Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher), Chatfield has spent the last few year in the OHL rather than the NCAA. As good as he’s looked, giving him time to acclimate to the pro game would be the smart move.
There’s also the fact that there’s just no way he’d been playing games at the NHL level, as he’d be the eighth D-man on the depth chart. A young rearguard like him needs a ton of ice time; he’ll get that in Utica.
Offence will likely be a bonus going forward, rather than an expectation, but that doesn’t mean that the Canucks haven’t got something special in this well rounded and intelligent defender. That’s pretty great for a player that cost nothing but a contract to pick up.