Bruins

Bruins

There’s no denying Zdeno Chara is still the No. 1 defenseman for the Boston Bruins, but there is a question as to what exactly that means these days.

Chara’s status was clear when the Bruins defense corps struggled in the first two regular season games without him, and there’s no doubt the 38-year-old helped stabilize things a bit on and off the ice when he returned to action against Tampa. But Chara’s return didn’t change things for the Black and Gold, who dropped to 0-3-0 on the season for the first time since the Bruins traded captain Ray Bourque in the middle of the 1999-2000 season.

The Bruins captain’s presence didn’t prevent the Bruins from missing the playoffs last season, and he’s already missed two games during this season after missing 19 games due to injuries amid last year’s disappointment. The Bruins hope Chara, who by all accounts is still battling discomfort stemming from his preseason upper body issue, is entering a healthy and productive stretch of hockey, and will be the solidifying veteran influence that the young B’s blueliners badly require right now.

There’s no doubting that a player like Chara is still capable of providing quality minutes, stopping the other team’s best players on many nights and perhaps even still kicking in a little offense here and there.

“It was great to see the big man back,” said Chris Kelly simply when asked about Chara’s return to the lineup.

The question is whether the big man can shoulder the same considerable burden that he’s carried in the past with the Bruins.

When posed with questions about his viability as a defenseman capable of still carrying a team at his advanced NHL age, Bruins President Cam Neely cautioned against giving up on Chara off given his Hall of Fame body of work.

“I don’t want to be writing off Zee. He’s in such great shape, and he really looks after himself as good as anybody does. Just because of his size and strength, he really makes it difficult for players,” said Neely, prior to the start of the regular season. “I think what we’ve added that we didn’t have in the past is some more skating ability outside of what we’ve had. We can get out of our own zone a little quicker, and make it a little less taxing if we’re not playing in our zone as much. . . especially last year.

“You can’t really just say it’s about one player though, right? I think he’s one of the best – if not the best – defensive defensemen, and I think his reach alone is something that makes it very difficult on players. He’s so strong and he’s very smart. But it’s more about the group. We have a world class goalie in Tuukka, we feel our backup situation is going to improve and I think our forward group is deeper through the four lines.”

Clearly in the short term there’s no arguing the importance of the 6-foot-9 former Norris Trophy winner, and his place within the Bruins team structure even as he turns 39 years old this season.

But there will come a time in the rapidly approaching future when the Bruins move on from their longtime captain, and that process may even be fast-tracked if this Bruins season continues as it has over a disastrous first week. The Bruins can’t possibly be as bad as they’ve shown in the first three games of the season, but their defensemen group could ultimately prove to be the very reason they miss the playoffs by a wider gap than last season.

There’s also the simple, undeniable fact that Chara has logged a lot of hard miles over the years, and he’s going to incur more injuries, not less, in the last few seasons on his current contract. He missed more time last season than in any previous season of his Bruins career, and he suffered an injury three shifts into this year’s preseason. That’s the effect of Father Time on an aging player that’s suited up for 1,335 regular season and playoff games over an 18-year career, and that’s something no amount of diligent fitness and conditioning can avoid.

Don Sweeney hopes for improvement as the season moves along, and spoke of the Bruins ideally evolving into a mobile, Blackhawks-like defensemen corps built on speed, athleticism, quick decisions and puck movement across the board.

“We have to first evaluate what we have when Zee comes back into this group because we haven’t had that outside of the few minutes he was able to play,” said Sweeney, prior to the start of the season. “Most of those [recent Stanley Cup teams] have done a good job of growing that player, and then when you’re in your window you utilize it. Chicago has done a fantastic job of utilizing their top-4 [defensemen] and then filling in around it. Call it what you want: fortunate, well-trained or whatever. But they’ve been able to remain healthy during their runs, and that’s a big part of it.

“The takeaway pieces that are important to our team is that you better make sure that you have your depth. Training camp has allowed us to see if there are some players that are going to emerge. As far as taking 29 or 30 minutes a night, Zee is capable of playing it. But it’s like with Tuukka where if we roll him out there 82 nights, he’s not going to play as well. We’d like to be smarter when we utilize. It doesn’t mean that Zee’s impact on the game – or Dennis [Seidenberg] when he comes back – won’t be equal to what it was, but if we do a better job of spreading around the minutes we’ll be better off in the long run.”

The regular season is obviously one thing when minutes can be conserved, and the Bruins could be economical with Chara. But the playoffs are a different beast altogether, and the teams at the end have a D-man that transforms into a 30 minutes of ice time plus per night workhorse during the postseason.

That’s going to be a problem for the Bruins for the foreseeable future.

Let’s be honest here: the Bruins D-men croup is nowhere close to the quality of the Blackhawks group, and Chara is no longer in the same class as reigning Conn Smythe winner Duncan Keith, or past playoff stalwarts like Drew Doughty or Victor Hedman. The 38-year-old has been nothing short of a warrior for the Bruins, and it’s a testament to his will, his work ethic, his talent, his toughness, his leadership and his commitment that the Bruins have qualified for the playoffs in seven of his last eight seasons in Boston.

A quick perusal of the Stanley Cup winners over the last five seasons reveal some very uniformly, similar qualities, but the biggest universal truth is this: each Stanley Cup winner over the last five years has a clear, dominant No. 1 defenseman in the prime of their career (22-33 years old) on their roster. That No. 1 elite defenseman must be capable of playing 30 plus minutes per game during the long, two month playoff run, and sustain his superior performance through the postseason gauntlet.

There was Keith in 2010, 2013 and again last spring as the Conn Smythe winner for the 2015 Stanley Cup champs in Chicago, and Chara on the far edge of those prime years at 33 years old while hoisting Boston’s Cup in 2011. There was a young Doughty lifting the Cup in 2012 and 2014 while leading the Kings Stanley Cup crew to a pair of titles, and even last year’s Eastern Conference runner-up, the Tampa Bay Lightning, boasted a young, dominant franchise D-man emerging on their roster in Hedman.

Those young D-men were able to maintain elite-level performance while logging Herculean ice time totals over an extended two month playoff stretch. That’s a tall order for a player on the verge of turning 40 years old like big No. 33. Chara has seen a drop-off to his play in each of the last two instances (the six game Cup Final series in 2013, and the second round series vs. Montreal in the 2014 playoffs) that the Bruins did qualify for the playoffs, and that doesn’t feel like an aberration.

The Bruins flatly don’t have that kind of D-man right now on their roster, and traded away the only player that could possibly qualify for that category (Dougie Hamilton) to the Calgary Flames this summer. Bruins management can talk about competing to be a playoff team this season, about the sterling example Chara sets for the young players on what it means to be a true professional and about the belief he’s still capable of rising to the occasion when the Bruins absolutely need a true No. 1 NHL defenseman.

But the facts don’t lie.

The simple fact is the Bruins need somebody to supplant the 38-year-old Chara as their in-his-prime No. 1 defenseman if they hope to be serious Cup contenders once again, and those kinds of players don’t come around very often.

 

COACH’S CHALLENGE A CHALLENGE TO THE REFEREES?

It will be interesting to see how things play out with the coach’s challenge feature provided to the 30 NHL coaches this season. Claude Julien and the Bruins were on the wrong side of it in last weekend’s loss to the Montreal Canadiens when a Loui Eriksson goal was waved off on the ice by Dan O’Rourke due to incidental contact with Patrice Bergeron and Carey Price.

The replays showed Bergeron was pushed into the crease by Alexei Emelin and was making every effort to stay out of Price’s path as the puck made its way to the net, and it certainly appeared there were grounds for a good goal.

Julien certainly felt like the league, and the officials, got the call wrong in a game where one more Bruins goal could have made a big difference.

“I’m disappointed, but I think what people are going to realize in those kind of things is that on a lot of occasions we’re going to agree to disagree. That was the case [on Saturday night],” said Julien after the loss to the Habs. “I really felt Bergy [Patrice Bergeron], first of all when you look back at it, both his feet are outside the crease area, he got the inside position and then I felt that he was being pushed into their goaltender, and even made that effort to get out.

“I saw Carey Price sort of back off here looking for the puck with Bergy not even touching him at that point when the puck went in. That’s why I say we’re going to agree to disagree at times, and I don’t know what their reasoning is. They didn’t take the time to explain, and I don’t think they need to . . . but I really thought we had ourselves a goal there.”

The “no goal” ruling was obviously upheld by O’Rourke and the NHL Situation Room in Toronto, but it brings up an interesting dynamic in the beginning days of this new instant replay challenge. Will there be pushback by referees to overturn their own calls on any replay that isn’t cut-and-dried like the first coach’s challenge of the season up in Toronto? Or will referees that are challenged more often get hesitant about overturning their own calls?

Julien’s challenge in Saturday night’s loss to the Habs was the third NHL regular season game refereed by O’Rourke this season, and the third game where a coach’s challenge had been employed after a questionable call. The calls were overturned in both the Maple Leafs/Canadiens season opener, and a Buffalo/Ottawa game last Thursday where an Evander Kane goal was wiped out when replays showed that Zemgus Girgensons was offside on the play.

So another overturned call in the Habs/Bruins game on Saturday night would have meant three successful coach’s challenges in three straight games worked by O’Rourke. Nobody is questioning whether O’Rourke trying to get the call right, of course, but there’s a human element at play here when the on-ice referee has to sign off on overturning his own call. It will be interesting to see if there are situations like last weekend where the NHL doesn’t seem to be getting the call right, even with the benefit of today’s cutting edge replay technology.

 

ONE TIMERS

*In our weekly check on the goalie that the Bruins traded without even getting a look at him this summer, San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones is now 3-0-0, and is leading the NHL with a 0.33 goals against average and a .987 save percentage. Jones also became the quickest goalie (38 games) to get to nine career shutouts since Bruins great Frank Brimsek did in 28 games in 1938-39. A friendly warning: You may not want to take a look at Tuukka Rask’s stats after looking at the Jones stat line. As Bob Lobel used to famously say, “Why can’t we get players like that?”

 

*Congrats to Bruins prospect Frank Vatrano being named CCM/AHL Player of the week after scoring five goals in his first two games with the Providence Bruins, and showing the deadly shot that he also featured for the B’s in training camp. While Vatrano showed at the end of camp that he’s not quite ready for the NHL level, I don’t think he’s a player that’s very far away either. His dominant numbers right out of the AHL chute would seem to indicate that as well.



*Good new hockey nickname for Chicago Blackhawks Russian sensation Artemi Panarin, who scored in his NHL debut for the Blackhawks and has shown very good offensive skill as a 23-year-old signed out of the KHL. Joel Quenneville revealed after the opening night loss to the Rangers that the Blackhawks call him “The Bread Man.” Like Panera Bread . . . get it?



*The best news in the NHL over the first week of the season was from Florida, where Jaromir Jagr said he was bringing back to the mullet he hasn’t sported since way back in 1999. Jagr said he cut it off way back then for a girlfriend, but now hasn’t cut his hair in months while looking for the same special powers that Samson received from his flowing locks back in the Old Testament days.

"I'm not going to cut my hair, see if there is still power in the hair,” Jagr said to George Richards of the Miami Herald. "Once I cut it [in 1999] I couldn't score again."

Anybody paying attention to Jagr’s activities this summer knows the 43-year-old can still score with or without the mullet, but maybe he’ll need his hockey hair’s special powers if he hopes to keep playing until he’s 50 years old.