At 6-foot-9, Zdeno Chara was hard to miss Thursday during the Capitals' intrasquad scrimmage. He towered over his new teammates and even took out one as he knocked over Jonas Siegenthaler at the blue line. The hits and the physical intimidation of playing against a giant are part of why Chara is now in Washington, but that's not the whole reason. The addition of Chara by the Capitals late in the offseason was a surprise move after the team had loaded up on defensive talent. So what does he add that the other players can't? The answer to that question gets at the heart of why he is now a Capital.
The first thing most people know about Chara is his size. He is a massive player and plays like it too. He is not afraid of doling out the big hits or dropping the gloves. But he is also a great all-around defenseman.
In Chara's 22 NHL seasons, he has played in over 1,500 games. He has scored 10 goals or more in his career 10 times in his career and reached 50 points three times. He also won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman in 2009.
"A guy whose resume speaks for itself," T.J. Oshie said. "Great defensively, offensively, a Norris winner, Stanley Cup winner, someone I’ve watched a lot of tape on, just how he uses his stick and his size and is just no fun to play against from the defensive side of the puck and how he defends hard.”
Chara, however, is 43 and will turn 44 in March. He's not a Norris Trophy defenseman anymore. He hasn't scored 10 goals since 2017, he hasn't recorded 50 points since 2012 and his ice time has decreased in each of the last four seasons.
Chara's resume is sparkling, but who exactly are the Caps getting at this point in his career? The real value of Chara is not what he brings on the ice, it's what he brings off of it with the kind of qualities that don't go away with age.
“[Chara's] played the game for a long time," Peter Laviolette said. "He's had incredible success doing things a certain way. His character is his character. His leadership is his leadership. The way he plays the game, what you see on the ice: All of these things I expect nothing to change. It's just kind of his DNA and his makeup of who he is. And so we welcome all of that. He's intense, he's polite, he's strong, he's physical, he's hungry. There's a lot of attributes that he brings to the team."
Having a player like Chara around is a huge boon for the team's prospects who now get to learn from a future Hall-of-Fame defenseman, an iron man who is entering his 23rd NHL season and a great leader.
What Chara brings to the locker room, to his preparation, to the way he approaches the games are not things that can be taught by a coach. They are best learned by example.
“I think any time you bring experience, especially from a guy that was obviously a very good captain and a guy that carries himself very professionally with what he eats, how he trains when he comes to the rink, how he prepares," Oshie said. "We are, I feel, like a little bit of a more veteran team this year, but we do still have got guys that can only benefit from seeing a guy like Chara come in."
Some players bristle at this notion of being a mentor. While they are focusing on prolonging their career, they do not want to get saddled with having to mentor younger players who they know will one day replace them.
Chara, however, knows his place in the game and has been very open with Washington's young prospects in his short time in camp thus far.
"I really enjoy that type of a role where I can really help out maybe younger kids coming up in the system," Chara said.
Chara's first practice coming out of quarantine was with the second group with the majority of the team's prospects. Chara was seen talking with first-round draft pick Hendrix Lapierre and seemed to enjoy the experience of playing with the younger group.
“I enjoy talking to younger players when they have questions or they’re kind of asking me for stories or asking what it was like many years ago playing in the NHL," Chara said. "But it’s really nice to have these kind of conversations and starting kind of like new friendships.”
This would seem like the perfect set up for an up-and-coming team with lots of young players who are all trying to learn how to win in the NHL develop for a future run at the Stanley Cup. But that's not the situation in Washington. For the Caps, it's Stanley Cup or bust.
Even though Washington is a much more veteran team, however, those players are also excited about what Chara can add.
"He's here to help us, not just for 'OK, we signed Chara,'" Alex Ovechkin said. "He's gonna come here, he's gonna work hard, he's gonna bring some energy, he's gonna bring some new experience to our team and I think it's gonna help us."
Defensively, Washington was atrocious in 2019-20. The team may have ranked 18th overall in goals against for the season, but that was greatly inflated by a hot start. From Dec. 23 to when the season paused on March 12, the Caps ranked 29th in the NHL giving up 3.44 goals per game.
Turnovers were an issue, bad stretch passes, poor decisions, miscommunications and just an overall lack of accountability was affecting the blue line. The leadership of Brooks Orpik, who retired after the 2018-19 season, was clearly missing.
That's a void Chara seems uniquely qualified to fill.
"We've obviously missed [Orpik] and certainly he probably has a lot of the same great qualities as a player and as a leader," Carlson said. "I think we have a lot of leaders on this team, but I don't think you can ever have enough. Certainly a guy that's been in a different organization for a long time and see things probably a little bit differently to learn from and work with and work from is important for all of us."
Carlson added, "I think [Chara's] going to be an important part of this team that certainly would mimic a big role that Brooks had on and off the ice."