The Zdeno Chara problem isn’t what you think it is.
It isn’t that he’s over the hill and unable to lead the Bruins to another Stanley Cup. It’s that the window for him to do so is closing, and the last two seasons have provided glimpses of the terrifying truth: When Chara isn’t right, the Bruins aren’t anywhere near as good.
Last season saw the Blackhawks come back from a 2-1 series deficit to win three straight games and take the Stanley Cup as a noticeably weaker Chara battled through a hip injury. This season, the injury Chara suffered in Game 3 – a fractured finger that may or may not require surgery – yielded a noticeable decline that led to the opposition scoring in at least one instance.
Chara is 37 years old and has four years remaining on his contract. The next three seasons will see him carry a $6.916 million cap hit and the final year of the deal will have a $4 million cap hit, as he will be over 40 years of age, and cap hit is calculated by taking the total money before the player turns 40 and dividing that by the number of years before the player turns 40. In each year after that, the player’s salary is their cap hit.
The annual Norris snub will be 41 at the end of his contract. Whether or not he chooses to play beyond that, it’s safe to say Chara will slow down by the time he’s 41.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he continues status quo for a little bit, a year or two years, three years,” Peter Chiarelli said Friday, “but just laws of physics and nature, the older you get, the less effective you’ll be.“
Less effective, sure, but how much less and when? When Chara got to Boston, he played 27:58 a night. This past season, he played 24:39, marking a pretty big dip in minutes over the last eight seasons. By the time he’s at the end of that contract, there’s a fair shot he might not be the team’s leader in time on ice, and that would be OK.
Chara will go down as one of the greatest shutdown defensemen to ever play the game, but today’s NHL doesn’t necessarily call for shutdown D to play half the game. In Chicago, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya – the members of the team’s shutdown pairing – were third and fifth on the team in ice time, respectively, this season. Hjalmarsson played 21:16, while Oduya played 20:06.
Though Chara is the straw that stirs the defensive drink for the Bruins, he wouldn’t rule out taking on such a role in the future, which the Bruins might be able to swing by focusing on matching lines (something Claude Julien likes to do) in addition to defensemen.
“I don't think that playing 24, 25 minutes is a number that I'm set on,” Chara said Friday. “I'm more likely focusing on what I can do to help the team and how I could do it. I've never been a guy that puts [my] foot down that 'I want to play this amount of minutes.' I've had games where I was under 20 minutes; I’ve had games where I was above 30 minutes.
“It really comes down to one thing and one thing only: winning. If we're winning and we're playing well, I don't think that there's reason to be looking at the amount of minutes. It's all about winning.”
The question with Chara is when he’s going to hit that wall where he isn’t that same guy anymore. Some argue he’s hit it already, but Chara was the best defenseman in the NHL this season and is a finalist for the Norris.
He probably won’t win due to an odd bias that Greg Wyshysnki calls “Anyone but Zdeno Chara” logic, but he, according to both the eye test and numbers, was the last defenseman that teams would want to face.
Chara was good in the Montreal series until he got hurt. In the first game, Chara was on the ice for those power-play goals the Habs scored, but he didn't allow anything five-on-five and finished the game a plus-1 as he began what was a very frustrating stretch for Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais. In Game 2, he was on the ice for all five of the Bruins' goals.
Then the first shift of Game 3 happened, and Chara took a slash to the hand from Michael Bournival that caused him to head down the tunnel. When Chara returned to the ice about six minutes later, he committed a turnover on his first shift. The shots he took were wrist shots, though he would attempt a slapshot in each of the final two periods.
Chara held it together for a couple of games as he continued to silence Desharnais and Pacioretty, both of whom had just a power play secondary assist apiece over the series' first four games. The Canadiens did not score a five-on-goal against Chara in the first five games of the series.
Then the sixth game happened, and Chara's struggles began to make themselves painfully apparent. Chara failed to take the body on Pacioretty on a bouncing puck high in the offensive zone in the second period of Game 6, leading to a breakaway on which Pacioretty scored his first goal of the series. In Game 7, Chara couldn't get the puck out of the Bruins' zone on a first-period penalty kill. He looked physically weak, and the fact that he probably couldn't grip his stick that well would explain that. On Friday, Chiarelli said Chara was one of "a bunch" of players that didn't perform the way the Bruins had hoped.
In many ways, it was similar to last season against Chicago. In the first three games of the series, Chara was a problem for the Blackhawks, and his dominance was enough to turn a guy like Bryan Bickell into a fourth liner. Then Chara got hurt and the Blackhawks realized he was hurt and the Blackhawks won three in a row to win the Stanley Cup. Chara being hurt wasn't the only reason the Blackhawks won that series, but it's a major reason.
This season, a less-than-100-percent Chara was one of many reasons the Bruins lost, but his injury wasn’t like last season’s and at the very least does not suggest he is breaking down. If this were another hip injury or something similar, there would be reason for concern. Yet bones are broken on slashes all the time, and that isn’t a reflection of Chara not having the right body for the job anymore.
That day will come, but the truth is that nobody knows when.
“We’ll see when we get there because I don’t have the answer how Zee’s going to be halfway through next year or two years from now or when he’s 41,” Julien said, “and I’d be wasting a lot of time trying to speculate that.”
Maybe it’s one more year, maybe it’s two or three, or maybe Chara remains truly dominant for the rest of this contract. Either way, it’s a visible window. Things will change between now and then – Dougie Hamilton should be one of the game’s top defensemen at that point – but here’s what we know now: Zdeno Chara is the Bruins’ best player (yes, he is) and he isn’t going to be around forever. The opportunity to win can’t be squandered like it was this season, as they’ll only have so many more cracks at it with this guy.
“Of course I want to honor my contract and finish strong,” Chara said. “I want to continue to play hockey [as long as] I'm effective and healthy. My thoughts right now are on next season.
“I hope I can play longer … why wouldn't I? It's fun to be playing this game. I love everything about it -- the competing level, being around the younger guys. Honestly, it's a treat playing in the NHL and competing against the best. But right now my focus is on next season and being the best I can be and being in the best shape I can be and ready.”