By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
One of the worst things about sports fandom in 2020 has to be the all-or-nothing approach many have adopted to properly keep pace with the hot take machine. Everything is now either the worst or the best. (It’s rarely the former, we’ve learned.) Nothing simply is what it is, and offering the in-between is taken as a copout and not just being a well-adjusted human being. It’s strange and awful. Exhausting, too. Can’t forget exhausting.
That approach has made its way to Bruins captain and current unrestricted free agent Zdeno Chara.
It’s become impossible to talk about the 6-foot-9 Chara, once the game’s top shutdown defenseman, without a reply saying that Chara is finished and that it’s time to walk away. This just one year after Chara played through a broken jaw in the final three games of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, and after a 2019-20 campaign that came with a top-10 plus-minus finish.
In other words, nope!
Now, is this to say that Chara is still an in-prime, top-flight, top-pairing defenseman at 43 years old? No. I think we’ve seen enough to know that an ice-time reduction — even if it’s a slight one — will do him wonders. The Bruins have tried that in recent seasons, too. Chara no longer plays on either power-play unit, and the Bruins will sometimes mix-and-match their d-pairs (especially in the offensive zone), leaving No. 33 to handle a ton of own-zone work.
But, again, the idea that he’s cooked because of a 13-game sample in never-before-experienced conditions? I gotta pass.
Let’s start with the numbers.
In his 14th season with Boston, Chara put up five goals and 14 points for the second straight season. His plus-22 goal differential at five-on-five was tops among all Boston defenders, and that’s with Chara on the ice for a staggering 179 defensive-zone faceoffs, five less than Charlie McAvoy’s team-leading 184, and 46 more than the next closest Boston defenseman (Matt Grzelcyk, 133).
Chara’s heavy d-zone deployment didn’t result in ugly goal totals against either, as Chara was on the ice for 1.8 goals against per 60 minutes of five-on-five play in 2019-20. That was the third-best number in all of hockey (only teammate Brandon Carlo and the Stars’ Miro Heiskanen were better) among the 99 defensemen with at least 1,000 five-on-five minutes, and Chara ranked 19th in high-danger chances against per 60 (9.33).
The rock on Boston’s penalty kill, Chara averaged a team-leading 3:11 of shorthanded time on ice per game for a B’s penalty kill that ranked as the third-best unit in all of hockey last year. One of just 12 defenders to play at least 200 shorthanded minutes last year, Chara was the group’s fourth-best shot suppressor, averaged the fourth-fewest scoring chances against per 60 minutes of shorthanded time, and the B’s .882 shorthanded save percentage with Chara on the ice was the highest among that field of 12.
(Gotta say, we have a very strange idea of ‘finished’ is this is what passes as that these days.)
And after failing to net the market’s big fish (Mike Hoffman is still on the market but who knows what happens there), and facing a potential truncated schedule, the Bruins are going to need all the d-zone help they can get. This team just seems built to win 2-1 or 3-2 more than they are 4-3 or 5-4. Chara’s presence helps in that department.
And look at Chara’s competition on the left side of the Boston defense.
With Chara unsigned, and with Torey Krug off to St. Louis, the B’s left defense currently features Matt Grzelcyk, John Moore, Jeremy Lauzon (though he’s mainly played on the right since coming to the NHL), and prospects Urho Vaakanainen and Jakub Zboril. Grzelcyk may become a top-pair defender by default this season, and Moore has been the B’s fourth-best left-side defenseman since coming to Boston two seasons ago. It’s not exactly the most rock-solid top four. And even below that, Lauzon battled consistency issues in the bubble, Vaakanainen had practice issues during his mini-run with Boston, and Zboril looked downright terrified in his two-game NHL sample in 2018-19. There’s little to love about this group being thee group.
Chara, even at 43 and in need of a reduction, stabilizes that more than most would like to admit.
Grzelcyk’s projected usage in 2020-21 would also lead you to believe that Chara’s spot remains there as a need for the B’s.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney has talked about Grzelcyk’s slot in the defense being more matchup based than anything else. That means we may see him with McAvoy one night and then with Carlo the next. Chara, of course, has experience playing with both, making him the perfect player to flip back-and-forth with Grzelcyk.
Chara was reunited with Carlo for a quick stretch last season, and it actually served its purpose.
That duo has played 1,920 minutes together over the last four seasons, too, making them the 26th-most utilized pairing in hockey over that span. Reuniting them on a near full-time basis may see the Bruins go with an overload approach — hammer teams at one end with a Grzelcyk-McAvoy pairing in the o-zone and rely on the massive reach and defense-first approach from the Chara-Carlo pairing — but it’s one that has history and can be effective over an 82-game grind.
I also think that the Chara-Carlo pairing brings the best out of Carlo, too, as Carlo is forced to become the pairing’s offensive mind and becomes a more active three-zone presence versus the ‘GTFB’ approach Carlo often had to play as the potential last line of defense with when on a pairing with Krug.
But most of all, this is where Chara wants to be.
“I love Boston, I love the city, and I think we have the best fans in the world,” Chara said earlier this offseason. “I have no plans to move or go anywhere else, so we’ll see what the future holds.”
And after taking multiple one-year, low-dollar deals to stay here, you have to imagine that another one is on the way should Chara return. (Basically just think what the Sharks did with Joe Thornton for multiple years before he decided to chase a Cup with his hometown Maple Leafs.) Sweeney has acknowledged about that aspect of his relationship with Chara’s camp, too.
It should all culminate with a deal that keeps No. 33 in Boston for a 15th season.
Because Chara, though not what he once was, is absolutely not finished.