By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The NHL season is inching closer and closer, and though the league has their sights set on what they feel is a doable Jan. 1 start, Bruins captain Zdeno Chara remains without a contract.
That may honestly mean absolutely nothing.
It's been said that the 43-year-old Chara, who made it known earlier this offseason that he wants to continue playing, is waiting to see how the 2020-21 NHL season will look before making his decision. That theory is supported by the Bruins' Don Sweeney having said they're waiting for Chara to initiate talks and tell them his plans. (The Bruins are also selling Chara 'Reverse Retro' jerseys in their official pro shop, if you like to read into those things.)
But until a decision is made — either by Chara or the Bruins — his future will come up when talking B's. As it did during Bruce Cassidy's chat with the NHL Network's Jamison Coyle earlier this week.
“It has because there’s been conversations that he may not be back," Cassidy admitted to Coyle when asked if the thought of a Chara-less defense has crossed his mind as the team preps for a new season. "Ultimately that decision is made by management — obviously coaches have input — but for me the part of it that’s a little bit impersonal is you’re always preparing for who is in the lineup.”
This isn't too different from what Cassidy, who captured the Jack Adams Trophy as the league's top coach this past season, told NBC's Raul Martinez earlier this offseason.
But the deep dive that followed certainly felt illuminating in the sense that the Bruins may have actually have mapped out their plan for a season without their captain of 14 years.
And Cassidy's focus went right to the B's youth.
"We’re looking at if Zee’s not in, could [Jeremy] Lauzon go in and do the job?" Cassidy wondered aloud. "Jeremy played hard this year. He’s a bigger body, he’s bigger than people think; he’s about 215 pounds. He’s not 6-foot-9, but he’s a big guy and he can do some of the things that Zee brings to the table in terms of shutting down good players, playing hard against good players. [Lauzon]'s got some work to do on the penalty kill to get where Zee’s at but that’s another area where we feel he can help us.”
Appearing in 17 games from Jan. 31 to Mar. 10 before the COVID-19 pandemic put the NHL on the shelf for four months, Lauzon emerged as a capable penalty-killing presence, with his 32:34 of shorthanded on ice standing as the fourth-most among all Boston defenders, trailing just Chara, Brandon Carlo, and Charlie McAvoy. Lauzon was effective in that shorthanded sample, too, with the Bruins surrendering just one power-play goal with Lauzon out there as a killer, and with Lauzon killing as the 11th-best shot suppressor over that run (46.1 shots against per 60 minutes).
Lauzon isn't the only young gun pick looking to make his mark.
“Then you have some of the young guys we picked a few years;[Urho] Vaakanainen and [Jakub] Zboril are both first-round picks," Cassidy offered. "A little bit of that 'circle of life' situation where you draft and develop and they’ve had good years down in Providence. So we may have to find out if they’re ready to play or not."
Vaakanainen and Zboril are both left shots, and both have something to prove. Vaakanainen didn't practice well during his time with the B's last year, and Zboril is one of just two 2015 first-round picks yet to establish himself as an NHL regular. The Bruins also gave him a one-way contract (and he's waiver-eligible should he not make the team out of training camp) and the Bruins are already loading up his hype train ahead of next season.
Neither player has experience on their side, however, with Zboril appearing in just two games in 2018-19, and Vaakanainen appearing in seven NHL over the last two seasons. (Quick shoutout to somebody who can tell me literally anything about Vaakanainen's seven-game sample. Like did you know that he played in five games last year? Coulda fooled me.)
But the B's aren't sweating a potential baptism by fire.
"We’ve done that with other players here," Cassidy acknowledged. "[Charlie] McAvoy was a little more accelerated, but [Brandon] Carlo went through it, went through it with [Matt] Grzelcyk.”
Cassidy is aware of the leadership void that'd come with a Chara exit, of course. That said, he doesn't hate the opportunity it presents for some of the Black and Gold's other blue liners and players looking to put themselves back on the map.
“[Miller] brings some of that ‘big brother’ and bite that — if Zee weren’t to be here — can make up for some of that," Cassidy said. "And maybe [it’s an] opportunity for other guys to step up in the leadership department. Like a Carlo, McAvoy, Grzelcyk that have been here for a few years. Maybe that influences their game as well and [they] become a little bit more consistent every night.”
This feels like a mix of fantasy and musts.
Cassidy did note that Miller has to get some games under his belt, but the truth is that Miller hasn't played since April 2019. He's undergone countless knee procedures since then. He's starting from square one. He's gotta prove he can be on the ice and upright before he's providing that physicality and bite on the ice.
As for the McAvoy-Carlo-Grzelcyk group, yeah, they absolutely need to have a leader emerge from this group. Even if Chara returns, we've (rightly) anointed McAvoy the heir to the Boston blue line and he's probably already there. If he rounds out the consistency part of his game, the B's are golden.
Again, this is what the Bruins are looking at if Chara isn't back with them.
Which is a departure that'd come with one big downside.
"The downside is Zee's a Hall of Famer," Cassidy said. "When you lose a player like that, it's gonna hurt a little bit."