COUNTDOWN TO CAMP: ZDENO CHARA
Countdown to camp: Zdeno Chara
From now until the beginning of training camp, Bruins Insider Joe Haggerty is profiling players who will be on, or have a chance to be on, the 2016-17 Bruins. Today: Zdeno Chara.
The Bruins captain and shutdown defender will turn 40 years old this season in March. He has looked every bit his age at times over the last couple of years. There are also times when old flashes of the 6-foot-9 intimidator pop up and he looks like a player that can still be effective if used properly as a player deep on the back nine of his career. Unfortunately, the Bruins aren’t in a situation when they can spot Chara in his senior moments because their back-end situation is still substandard at best. So, it might be another long year of ups and downs with Big Zee.
What happened last year
The numbers were actually not bad for Chara: nine goals, 37 points and a plus-12 rating in 80 games played for the Bruins. Certainly not the kind of numbers he was putting up when he was a Norris Trophy finalist, but still something that looks solid enough. But the truth is that Chara looked slower, more mistake-prone and less of a complete lockdown defender than he’s ever been before. He was also less of a mean, surly defender before activating that part of his game late in the season. Also, he simply doesn’t wind up and take big slap shots anymore with the frequency that he used to. Chara looked understandably tired and worn down in the stress points in Boston’s regular season schedule and he really looked susceptible to speedy, skilled attackers on a regular basis. Some of this was certainly Chara’s defensive partners not being up to snuff all season, but there’s a reason Chara’s minutes keep going down each year. He was still a de facto No. 1 defenseman for a Bruins team that had no other alternatives, but last season would have been much better for Chara if he was a middle pairing D-man on a better hockey team. Of that there is no question.
Questions to be answered this season
Can Chara make it through another season where he’s expected to play 23-25 minutes per night, play in all high-leverage situations and do it with a rotating guest star format for his defensive partner? He probably can at 39, but the better question at this point might be, "Does he want to keep doing that each and every year?" Life would be easier for the 6-foot-9 future Hall of Famer if he ended up moving to another Cup-contending team this season in the middle of the year just as another aging Bruins captain did nearly 20 years ago in Ray Bourque. These are different situations, of course, because Chara’s already won a Cup in Boston, and he’s now continuing to be paid dividends for what he did for the Black and Gold over the past 10 years. The biggest question is, when might Chara really fall off the table competitively as a big-bodied player hovering around 40? The Bruins hope that doesn’t happen this season.
In their own words
“Obviously if you don’t have the effort, you won’t have results. I can’t really tell you that the whole season’s been a disappointment. We’ve shown some positive stretches and things that we’ve done well, and we improved. But when times were [there] to fold up or respond, we always kind of found ourselves taking steps backwards. That was one of the things that was disappointing, and frustrating. I think that we are close, but close is not close enough. We’ve seen the last two years that we missed the playoffs by a point, two points. It’s just, I mean, we’re there, but obviously the commitment has got to be on a higher level. The execution has to be on a higher level, and that’s like I said, every individual has to be better in that area. Like we’re always saying, Game 1 and Game 82, they shouldn’t be different. Every game counts. Every point counts.” –Zdeno Chara, putting things into perspective after last season ended early again in April.
Chara, 39, will start the season as the Bruins captain and will again be the No. 1 defenseman on the NHL roster because Boston doesn’t have a choice. There’s also a contentedness with Chara still being around the Bruins as an example-setter for the young, talented group of B’s defensemen prospects coming up through the ranks and readying for their own big breaks in the next couple of years. Who better to show Brandon Carlo how to be a big, strong, intimidating force still capable of moving the puck efficiently than Chara? The hope is that Chara has a season equal to last year without any more slippage, and that some of the other blueliners around him can step up their respective games to support him a little bit better. But the reality is that players don’t improve or stay on a steady course of performance as they approach 40 years old, and instead there are diminishing returns as Father Time does his thing. The Bruins have refrained from dealing an aging Chara over the past couple of seasons even though that might be best for the organization, and one wonders if this is the season where that finally becomes a reality for a Bruins group that could be in for another challenging year.