Zdeno Chara is an aging, extremely important figure for Bruins

Zdeno Chara is an aging, extremely important figure for Bruins

Today’s piece on Zdeno Chara is the first in a 10-part series over the next two weeks breaking down the core Bruins group of players, and where they stand heading into next season after last spring’s Stanley Cup playoff run.

BOSTON – Zdeno Chara really doesn’t have much to prove at this point at 42 years old as the NHL’s oldest player and longest tenured captain with the Boston Bruins.

The B’s captain will be a Hall of Famer as the most dominant shutdown defenseman of his generation, a Stanley Cup winner and one of the most feared players to ever lace up skates as a 6-foot-9 tower of power. Chara still added to his legacy when he played through a fractured jaw during the Stanley Cup Final just a couple of months ago, and perhaps penned one of the final great chapters to a brilliant career that’s still going next season.

How much longer can he play? What will Chara’s role look like next season after age finally seemed to catch up to him a bit last season?

Those answers will materialize over the course of the next few seasons for a player that, like Tom Brady, seems determined to play until at least 45 years old. The only certainty at this point is that when that moment does happen, the Bruins want to make sure Chara retires in Black and Gold at the end of his perpetual one-year contracts with the team.

“First and foremost, [Chara] loves to play, he loves to compete and he wants to win,” said Bruins President Cam Neely. “The broken jaw was a great example of that. I believe he was hurt on a Tuesday and I went to see him on Wednesday morning, and he was ready to get out of the hospital after surgery. 

“You see him in the lineup Thursday night. You probably see more hockey players doing it, but I just don’t know how many athletes you see doing that. It speaks to where he felt he should be, where he wanted to be and that he’s 42 years old and in the Stanley Cup Final. Who knows when he’ll be able to get there again?

“Everybody plays banged up, and if you can play then you should play. That’s always been my take. But since I’ve been back since 2007 there’s always been a lot of players that have played through a lot, [Patrice] Bergeron, [Mark] Recchi and those kinds of guys. If you’re a young player [then you need to] recognize that this is what you do if you can do it. I certainly hope someday that [Chara] retires as a Boston Bruin. He’s done so much for this organization and he really helped turn things around [for the franchise] when he got here. He’s been a great ambassador, not only for us with the Bruins and for this city but for the game itself.”

Chara still averaged 21:05 of ice time per game as a top-4 defenseman for the Black and Gold, but it was also the lowest ice time total of his 20-year career as younger players like Brandon Carlo, Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy surpassed him in the ice time department. It will be interesting to see where Chara slots in if contract issues with McAvoy or Carlo spill into the regular season, and how much extra burden falls on his shoulders until things are resolved with the young D-men.

All things being equal, however, the Bruins are consciously going to manage Chara’s minutes and workload coming off a two-month playoff run, and attempt to put him in the best position to succeed as the oldest player in the NHL. The reality is that Chara may continue to miss some games due to injuries as has been the case in the last couple of seasons since getting on the wrong side of 40 years old. There may even be times when the prudent choice would be to rest a proud competitor like Chara if the Bruins have their depth fully intact once McAvoy and Carlo are fully back in the fold.

Whatever the case, the Bruins will again rely on Chara for defense, leadership and 20 minutes per night while setting the tone from a toughness standout as well.

Key Stat: 11.4 – the number of games missed per season over the last five years for Chara, who is clearly starting to show some wear and tear with his 42-year-old body still playing a key role for the Black and Gold.

Chara in his own words: “I think I’m able to tolerate pain. I was just able to focus on the game ahead of us. You have to accept that the game and sports will bring some pain, and those are sacrifices you have to be willing to accept.”

The biggest question he faces: How much can Chara sustain his game at 42 years old in a league that grows faster and more skill-oriented with each passing season? He’s still a superior penalty killer and a feared defender around the net and is extremely effective when he’s rested. But injuries are coming with higher frequency now and sustaining his performance in the playoff grind is always going to be a challenge.

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Karson Kuhlman looking like the front-runner for right wing spot on Bruins second line

Karson Kuhlman looking like the front-runner for right wing spot on Bruins second line

BRIGHTON, Mass – The Bruins ended last season with rookie Karson Kuhlman manning the right wing on David Krejci’s line during the final two games of the Stanley Cup Final.

It appears that, barring a surprise performance in Bruins training camp or an injury, the Bruins will start the season the very same way a few weeks from now. Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy mentioned David Backes and Brett Ritchie as other potential candidates, and didn’t rule out Anders Bjork or Danton Heinen from getting looks there either.

“We know we have Kuhlman that can play [on the second line] and I don’t think he’s going to drop off. He may flat line, I don’t know, but I don’t think he’s going to get worse,” said Cassidy. “To me he’s a bit of a person that’s going to keep working on his craft and get more comfortable. From there, we had Backes out there and we know that’s not a full time solution. [Brett] Ritchie is a wild card. We don’t know if he can play out there. He got some reps today in practice and we’ll probably look at it for a game or two.

“Those are the guys that come to mind. It could go to Heinen if he plays his off-side. They played together last year with DeBrusk and he could go there if we feel like he can help there. Bjork is a wild card. He’s played there. But we have him on the left side and we’re going to try him there. We know would start opening night with Kuhlman there and we’re going to be fine. But we’ll look at it and see if there’s a better fit right away. Ritchie is somebody we don’t know, so he could get in there and win that battle [for the spot]. It’s a bit of what’s the best fit and how it’s going to affect the rest of your lineup.”

But the 23-year-old Kuhlman clearly showed the Bruins coaching staff something last season even if the three goals and five points in 11 games last season didn’t exactly scream out top-6 winger. He had some good games certainly, and was excellent in Game 6 of the Cup Final vs. the Blues after he replaced Backes in the B’s lineup against the St. Louis Blues.

He brings speed, two-way play, maximum effort and hockey smarts to the table, and those are all things that will help the Bruins at points for as long as he’s there. But let’s be honest here. There’s a reason that Kuhlman went undrafted during his career at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and he was solid, not spectacular, in the AHL with 12 goals and 30 points in 58 games during his first season of pro hockey last year.

He’s good enough to be okay at the NHL level playing with a high level, creative player like Krejci, and he showed chemistry with the playmaking Czech and Jake DeBrusk in his limited time last season. It certainly sounds like he’s got a fan in Krejci, and that matters when it comes to his linemates.

“He’s got maybe a better shot than we’d seen his first time through in training camp,” said Cassidy, alluding to some goals he scored in the regular season and playoffs. “Then you talk to Krejci and he’s been around a long time. He’s had a lot of wingers and he’ll give you some feedback as well. [He says] Kuhlman gets to the right spots and makes plays at the right times. So some of it is your own eyes and some of it is trusting the guys on the ice that are playing with him.”

All of that is well and good, but he still scored only 15 goals and 35 points in 69 combined games between the AHL and NHL last season. He’s also just 5-foot-11, 185-pounds with a modest skill level that’s not going to help Boston’s difficulties scoring during even strength play last season.

It wouldn’t surprise anybody is Kuhlman is just good enough to be a place-holder until the Bruins find a permanent play-finishing solution on Krejci’s line. Certainly he’s not going to be confused with guys like Nathan Horton and Jarome Iginla that played on Krejci’s line during his best seasons with the Black and Gold.

So don’t be surprised if the Bruins are once again in search of a top-6 right wing sniper at the NHL trade deadline this season to eventually be an upgrade over Kuhlman. But for now, the Bruins will once again fix it on the fly for a few months after never finding a permanent solution this summer, and instead turning to the same, old in-house candidates that were never quite enough last season.

HAGGERTY: Torey Krug hoping to get extension>>>

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Torey Krug hoping he's "part of next wave of players" to get deals with Brandon Carlo, Charlie McAvoy taken care of

Torey Krug hoping he's "part of next wave of players" to get deals with Brandon Carlo, Charlie McAvoy taken care of

BRIGHTON, Mass – Torey Krug long assumed that the reason he hadn’t talked contract extension this summer with the Bruins was that they were busy working on deals for restricted free agent D-men Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo.

Now that both McAvoy and Carlo are back in the fold with reasonable cap numbers for the next few years, Bruins general manager admitted a couple of days ago that the team can move on to future forecasts and discussions with looming free agents. As of a couple of days later the Bruins and Krug hadn’t started a dialogue on a contract extension, but the productive offensive defenseman is eagerly looking forward to those discussions as he readies for the final year of a current deal paying him $5.25 million per season.

“It’s been no secret that it’s been at the forefront getting those two deals done because [McAvoy and Carlo] are a big part of our team,” said Krug. “At least we have them locked up for the near future. So you just hope that you’re part of the next wave of guys that will get dealt with.

“I’ve made no secret that I want to be part of this room, part of this organization and part of this city [beyond this season]. So I’m hoping sooner than later it gets dealt with so I can clear my mind and focus on hockey. But that being said, it’s never a distraction. I’ve done it year after in my career aside from the [current] four-year deal.”

Only Brent Burns, Victor Hedman, Erik Karlsson and John Carlson have scored more points than Krug’s 163 points over the last three seasons among NHL defensemen, and three out of those four have won Norris Trophies over that time span. Sure Krug has also been a minus-12 over that span as well, but there’s no denying his offensive prowess when he’s averaged nine goals and 54 points a season while playing top-4 minutes on the back end.

The 28-year-old also finally showed he can stay healthy during the postseason last spring and posted two goals and 18 points in 24 playoff games last spring. If the Bruins had won the Cup then Krug would have been in the middle of the Conn Smythe discussion, but instead his spring performance just added to his current value headed into a contract year.

Given all of the above and the fact the Bruins don’t have anybody – Matt Grzelcyk may never be that guy and McAvoy hasn’t developed to that point as of yet -- ready to replace Krug’s offense, re-signing the 5-foot-8 undrafted D-man should be a priority. Krug had a career-high 30 points on the power play last season as the top unit quarterback and continues to be an aggressive, smart catalyst perfectly cast in Bruce Cassidy’s offense that caters to creativity and hockey intelligence.

Best of all, Krug is willing to take a hometown discount similar to the way Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak all took a little less to remain in Black and Gold.

It's a far cry from the $10 million-plus per season salaries doled out to Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner in Toronto, and Krug has made it clear he’s not looking to get every last nickel on the table when it comes to staying in Boston.

“Absolutely. I think that’s something each individual player takes into account with the situation that they’re in. The role that they play on each individual team, how good their team is and how good their team will be moving forward. [Those are all] things that I’ve definitely considered. We’ll see what happens,” said Krug. “There’s a fine between protecting yourself and what you bring to the table, and also being happy and living in a place that you love, and your family loves. I have a little girl that I have to think about now. All of these things sound cliché, but they are things you have to take into account and worry about. We’ll see what happens.”   

One thing is for sure: Krug is going to get paid somewhere. He may take a little less to keep the band together in Boston moving forward, but the seven-year, $53.025 million contract signed by Jared Spurgeon in Minnesota would seem like fair market value for Krug should he become a free agent on July 1. That’s obviously a long way from now and Sweeney and Co. will get every opportunity to come up with something fair that could keep Krug in Boston for the long haul.

But if Krug does get to free agency, he doesn’t exactly sound worried about that prospect either given the money and potential suitors that would be there vying for him.

“It’s a good problem to have, right? That being said my focus is on the Boston Bruins and the here and now, and hopefully getting some clarity [on his contract]. I’m well aware that what I do in this league is something that people want and desire, especially with the way that the game is moving,” said Krug. “The transition game is so crucial to team success and the power play helps you win hockey games in the regular season and in the playoffs. These are things that I do well and I’m sure would be things that a lot of teams would be happy to have. But I’m just worried about the Bruins here and now.”

The Bruins have said all along that they’re well aware of Krug’s importance to everything that they do on the ice. Now is a golden chance for the B’s to prove it by showing just how much of a priority it is to retain Krug beyond this season while the player is admittedly looking for “some clarity” on his future in Boston.

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