By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Zdeno Chara Era is over.
You know what the world looked like the last time we talked like this? Superman Returns was the No. 1 movie in country.
They’ve since made like five more Superman and they’ve all sucked just as much ass as that one with the exception of one that was kinda cool. In addition to Superman, Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” was the No. 1 song in the country. That song still bangs, and Shakira is (probably) a fan of the blog, so I’m not gonna make fun of that one.
How this works out for the 43-year-old Chara, Don Sweeney, and the 2021 Bruins remains to be seen.
But it’s a sneaky-huge move that will certainly come with its own set of questions.
Some of which will need answering before the Bruins drop the puck on this 56-game marathon in just over two weeks…
What was the Bruins’ final offer if they made one?
Not gonna lie, $795,000 and some bonus money was more than doable (or beatable) for the Bruins.
The Bruins had a comparable offer on the table. Perhaps a better one in terms of actual dollars, too. But what was the request that accelerated his exit from Boston? Were the Bruins adamant that he was a third-pairing defenseman and penalty-kill specialist and not a rotating top-four defender? Did they want Chara to sit out the second leg of back-to-backs? If so, how did Chara, an obviously prideful guy, handle that and did it change the tenor of what felt like an easy negotiation given his desires?
There’s a communication breakdown and disagreement somewhere in there. I mean, you simply don’t pass on more guaranteed money and leave your home of 14 years to sign for under $800,000 with a divisional rival unless there’s legitimate philosophical and irreconcilable differences regarding your role.
Also: Did Chara circle back to the Bruins when the Capitals called? Or did the Bruins inform him that they were moving on and that’s when Chara decided to pursue his other options? Chara’s Instagram post seems to indicate that it was the Bruins who made the call, but the order of events here seems pretty important.
If Chara gave the Bruins a chance to match Washington’s offer and the Bruins still passed, then that’s all sorts of indefensible from a pure value standpoint alone.
How does the penalty kill handle his loss?
I really hate the idea that the Bruins are simply replacing a slower, past expiration body. Is Chara what he once was? Well considering he was the best shutdown man in hockey in his prime, nope, he is not. But he was still an extremely serviceable defenseman for this team, and the Bruins’ actual task is finding somebody capable of taking on his 21 minutes per night, which just so happen to be the hardest 21 minutes of their game. For all the talk of Chara’s demise, it’s worth noting that he began almost 70 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, and was the most-deployed killer on a penalty kill that ranked as the third-best in all of hockey last season. So, again, these are immensely difficult minutes you’re replacing.
This will be especially noticeable on the kill.
With Chara gone, Jeremy Lauzon is now the B’s top penalty-killing option on the left side.
Lauzon emerged as a solid fit there upon his midseason recalled, and averaged 1:50 of shorthanded time on ice per night from Jan. 21 through the conclusion of the regular season. Lauzon was on the ice for 1.92 power-play goals against per 60 over that sample, which was the third-best mark on the team, trailing only Patrice Bergeron (1.67) and McAvoy (1.24). Chara averaged 3:11 of shorthanded time on per night, mind you, so it’s going to take more than just upping Lauzon’s deployment here.
The 5-foot-9 Grzelcyk, smart and crafty with his body and stick despite his size, played over 70 minutes of penalty-kill work last season, and is an option. But if he’s quarterbacking the top power-play and playing top-pair minutes, adding shorthanded work to his plate may lead to overexposure. (Grzelcyk’s played over 24 minutes in just four of his 195 games since 2018.)
John Moore is an option, but last year’s efforts in such positions was a little rough.
Out there for over 45 shorthanded minutes, Moore on the ice for 63.96 shots against per 60 minutes of shorthanded action. That was the 13th-worst rate in hockey (though skewed by the sample size), and every player worse than half skated on penalty-killing units that ranked in the bottom half of the league. Include his final season in New Jersey and first two seasons in Boston, and Moore ranks 66th in on-ice shots against per 60, but was 14th in goals against and 40th in expected goals against per 60 among a group of 108 defensemen with at least 300 shorthanded minutes to their name.
We truthfully haven’t seen enough of Jakub Zboril and Urho Vaakanainen at this level to know if they’re ready for primetime penalty-killing time. P-Bruins coach Jay Leach leaned on Zboril down the stretch and thought he was becoming a “real force down low” before the AHL’s pause and subsequent cancelation. Zboril has the frame to be a penalty-killing asset and Vaakanainen was drafted with the hope of being a shutdown guy. But, we’re also working with a combined of 125 minutes of viewings (almost 103 from Vaak alone), so it’s a big bowl of “I don’t know” with these guys right now.
The Boston kill has already lost a bit of its bite for 2021, too, with fearless puck-eater Joakim Nordstrom off to Calgary and Brad Marchand expected to miss the first few weeks of the new season.
This is honestly going to be the biggest test of the B’s season and post-Chara life, if you ask me. Just consider this: The Bruins went a combined 65-for-70 (92.9 percent) on the penalty kill against their new divisional foes last season. And with almost all of these teams making personnel or coaching changes to bolster their power play’s pop — the Sabres adding Taylor Hall and Eric Staal, the Caps bringing in Peter Laviolette, the Penguins reuniting with ex-assistant coach and power-play guru Todd Reirden — keeping this penalty kill upright and productive without its 6-foot-9 is going to be a daunting task.
Who grabs hold of a leadership role on backend?
With Chara’s presence gone, the Bruins will need a new leader to emerge from this blue line. It may be easy to say that this is Charlie McAvoy’s blue line now. The major payday awaits him if he continues to trend upwards and and he is now the undeniable No. 1 defenseman for this team. There’s no 1-A and 1-B anymore. It’s McAvoy and everyone else. That said, don’t sleep on Brandon Carlo. He handles himself real well and has really come into his own as a voice in recent seasons.
There’s also Grzelcyk, who served as a captain in college for the Boston University Terriers, and is one of the group’s more tenured defensemen in terms of organizational experience and on-ice know-how with the B’s offseason departures.
“I got the opportunity to be captain in college for two years and that was an opportunity that I didn’t take too lightly,” Grzelcyk said earlier this offseason. “I think it’s part of my personality, I’m not the most vocal guy, I’m pretty quiet [and] try to lead more by example. I think that jut comes with experience and we have probably some of the best leadership in the NHL already on the team and so many years of experience that I don’t have to be the most vocal guy and want to talk up too much. I think that does come with confidence and experience through playing a number of years. If there is anything I can add to someone or a younger player who sort of needs advice. I’ve tried to take on that role more and more each year.”
Do Bruins have any insurance options on horizon?
The Bruins may have 10 bodies on their blue line entering training camp, but more may be necessary.
So, uh, who’s left?
The Bruins have been linked to free agent Ben Hutton. The 6-foot-3 Hutton is no franchise-changer, and may be nothing more than a No. 5 on a good team, but he had a strong 2019-20 as a complementary piece on a particularly woeful Kings team. Veterans Andy Greene (155 blocks in 63 games last year) and Sami Vatanen (23 points in 47 games last season) also remain without contracts.
On the trade market, the Bruins have been linked to Massachusetts native Noah Hanifin since the night he was drafted into the NHL. His stock has certainly dipped, especially after his 2019-20 season with the Flames, but is that something the B’s try to revisit? The Coyotes’ Oliver Ekman-Larsson is still toiling away in the desert and the Coyotes are broke. It feels like it’s only a matter of time before the Coyotes have to bite the bullet and see if he’ll go back on his “deadline.” (The Coyotes should consider negotiating from a realm that more closely represents reality if they engage on round two of trade talks with the Bruins or anybody else for that matter. You’re not getting top picks and prospects and getting the team to take on 100 percent of the contract. Gotta pick one or the other when you’re actual months behind on arena payments, my dudes.)
This may be a bad year for the Bruins to trade for a long-term answer on defense, however, as they’d have to protect said player in the upcoming Seattle expansion draft, which could expose someone like Grzelcyk or Carlo if the Bruins don’t work out a deal to prevent such an occurrence like the Blue Jackets did with Vegas in 2017. And I gotta admit, losing one of them after walking away from Chara (and Torey Krug) would feel real damn wasteful.
Is Kevan Miller actually healthy?
One of the ickier things to come out of Chara’s departure has been the demonization of Kevan Miller still being a Bruin.
Look, I get it. The Bruins made him a priority on the first day of free agency despite lingering knee issues keeping him on the shelf for the entire 2019-20 season. In fact, we haven’t seen Miller in a B’s uniform since Apr. 4, 2019. He insists that he’ll be ready for the start of the 2021 season, but we heard he was close two knee operations ago. It’s “believe it when we see it” territory. And at 33, he’s an odd piece to retain if the Bruins are moving on from Chara in the name of a youth movement. But Miller’s desire to continue his career in Boston, and accepting a contract from the Bruins (the only team who reached out to him when free agency began) is not something we should hold against him. Hell, we’d all do the same thing.
Why they did that is a bit of a mystery, I admit. But the real question is whether or not Miller is indeed fully healthy and ready to go this season, because with Chara gone, this team is going to need what he brought when upright.
The Bruins have lucked out to a certain degree — the heavy Bolts and increasingly heavier Canadiens and Panthers — are out of their division for 2021. But the Capitals love to bang bodies (Chara certainly helps that), and there’s obvious nastiness at the bottom of the roster in Philly, Long Island, Manhattan, and New Jersey. And with eight head-to-heads with everyone on deck, the intensity will rise, and so will the tempers. The Bruins will need more than Nick Ritchie and Chris Wagner to handle that.
That’s where Miller has been missed the most.