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Jalen Chatfield’s NHL Path From Journeyman to Defensive Mainstay

Jalen Chatfield's NHL path

Jalen Chatfield is a 27-year-old, right-handed defenceman for the Carolina Hurricanes. While the Hurricanes boast one of the deepest defensive groups in the NHL, Chatfield solidified his spot in the lineup last season after taking a somewhat long-winding route to the league. Not only does Chatfield’s story provide some inspiration to aspiring NHLers, but it also shows the incredible growth of the Michigan native and his importance to Carolina.

Jalen Chatfield’s NHL Path

Defenceman Jalen Chatfield went undrafted after playing for the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. The Vancouver Canucks signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2017. It’s not an extremely common occurrence that undrafted players make their way into a solid NHL role, but it does happen. While the NHL Entry Draft is always exciting, it is not the draft position that determines outcomes. It’s what the player does next. And Chatfield has shown that principle in his NHL path.

Chatfield’s first taste of the NHL came in 2020-21 with the Canucks. He suited up for 18 games and had one assist. Following that season, the Hurricanes signed Chatfield as a free agent for defensive depth. He played in 16 NHL games for Carolina but was a dominant force on the Chicago Wolves of the AHL. While most of that season was in the AHL, his NHL time showed he was not out of place in the big league. Carolina rewarded him with a two-year deal following that season. And then last season Chatfield went from depth call-up to defensive mainstay on the third pairing. Now even with the influx of experienced defencemen, Chatfield still makes a strong case for staying in the lineup.

From Call-Up to Stable Presence

Two years ago, Chatfield got his first experience with the Hurricanes. He appeared in 16 games and had three assists. While he stepped in as a depth defenceman, his underlying analytics were not bad. He was second on the team in expected goals percentage and expected goals against per 60 minutes. In the AHL, Chatfield helped anchor Chicago’s defensive core and had six goals and 12 assists in 44 games.

As the recipient of a new two-year contract following that season, management showed trust in Chatfield. With the departures of Anthony DeAngelo, Ian Cole and Brendan Smith, the Hurricanes brought in Brent Burns, Dylan Coghlan and Calvin de Haan. Ethan Bear started on the team’s roster but also left in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks. With an array of competition, Chatfield’s spot was anything but guaranteed. But that would quickly change.

Chatfield suited up on opening night and competed in 78 regular season games for Carolina. He scored six goals and eight assists over that span. Chatfield’s points and goals were in line with other defencemen such as Alec Martinez and Matt Dumba. With a defensive group largely stable in its pairings, Chatfield was the most stable defenceman on the third pairing. de Haan (mostly) and Coghlan took rotations on the pair while trade deadline acquisition Shayne Gostisbehere stayed there after his arrival in Carolina. As a pair, de Haan and Chatfield had a 58.7% expected goals percentage, but the Chatfield/Gostisbehere pair had a 67.5% expected goals percentage. This was good enough for second in the entire league for pairs playing over 150 minutes.

His individual analytics mostly aligned with him being the fifth-best defenceman on the team. But notably, his goal differential was second for Hurricanes defenceman at 17, roughly one more than his expected goal differential. His Corsi and Fenwick were both at 58% while he finished second amongst Hurricanes defencemen in hits with 78. These advanced stats paint the picture of a very effective, two-way bottom pairing defenceman. At many times last year, Chatfield was even slid up the lineup to take over when injuries arrived. The coaches clearly had confidence in him.

What Changed in Jalen Chatfield’s NHL Path?

What exactly changed for Chatfield to earn a mostly permanent spot on a deep defensive NHL team at age 27? One explanation is that his growth and familiarity with the system reached a point where his playing style fit in perfectly. Chatfield is not an offensive powerhouse or an elite shutdown defenceman, but he is an effective bottom-pairing two-way defenceman. He can skate like the wind and loves to attack the offensive zone and jump into the play. While this gets him out of position at times, his skating allows him to make it back defensively. He is not afraid to play physical and is good at generating chances. A highly engaged, pressuring defenceman who can move. This fits Carolina’s system to a T. And with responsible forwards willing to cover rushing defencemen, Chatfield has the freedom to move.

But the NHL is a very fast league, so Chatfield had to learn how to keep up. While his top speed may have been close for a few years, it had to be controlled to be effective. This may be one of the biggest areas of growth for Chatfield in this system taking him from call-up to permanent fixture. Becoming more positionally sound, knowing when to pinch or not and faster decision-making all improved over the last few years. Always a hard worker, a “polished” Chatfield has made a place for himself in the lineup.

Chatfield’s Place and Impact

We have discussed in depth the potential spot for Chatfield in the lineup this season in a previous article here and in our Hurricanes preseason preview article. It’ll be tougher with such a loaded group, but he makes a case for a place essentially as strong as higher profile names like DeAngelo as he brings a different element. It’s hard not to root for players like this. Guys that are not high draft picks and have grinded it out until earning their place. While 27 is a little older than usual for players just earning a spot in the NHL, it does happen. And these are the stories that have inspiration for others to work hard and seize opportunities. It doesn’t stop at the draft or after juniors/college, it can continue unconventionally as it did with Chatfield.

Meanwhile, for Carolina, this has become a huge free-agent pickup. No, he’s not an Orlov-type free agent nor will he likely be a permanent top pairing defenceman. But for the Hurricanes to sign him to a depth/AHL role and he turn out to be a solid bottom pair defenceman at a very affordable price is a major win. Whether the Hurricanes saw the potential when they signed him or not may not be clear, but it is clear that with Chatfield they got a solid piece on the team.

Main Photo Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports


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