Today's piece on Zdeno Chara is the first in a 10-part series over the next two weeks breaking down the core Bruins group of players, and where they stand heading into next season after last spring's Stanley Cup playoff run.
BOSTON – Zdeno Chara really doesn't have much to prove at this point at 42 years old as the NHL's oldest player and longest tenured captain with the Boston Bruins.
The B's captain will be a Hall of Famer as the most dominant shutdown defenseman of his generation, a Stanley Cup winner and one of the most feared players to ever lace up skates as a 6-foot-9 tower of power. Chara still added to his legacy when he played through a fractured jaw during the Stanley Cup Final just a couple of months ago, and perhaps penned one of the final great chapters to a brilliant career that's still going next season.
How much longer can he play? What will Chara's role look like next season after age finally seemed to catch up to him a bit last season?
Those answers will materialize over the course of the next few seasons for a player that, like Tom Brady, seems determined to play until at least 45 years old. The only certainty at this point is that when that moment does happen, the Bruins want to make sure Chara retires in Black and Gold at the end of his perpetual one-year contracts with the team.
"First and foremost, [Chara] loves to play, he loves to compete and he wants to win," said Bruins President Cam Neely. "The broken jaw was a great example of that. I believe he was hurt on a Tuesday and I went to see him on Wednesday morning, and he was ready to get out of the hospital after surgery.
"You see him in the lineup Thursday night. You probably see more hockey players doing it, but I just don't know how many athletes you see doing that. It speaks to where he felt he should be, where he wanted to be and that he's 42 years old and in the Stanley Cup Final. Who knows when he'll be able to get there again?
"Everybody plays banged up, and if you can play then you should play. That's always been my take. But since I've been back since 2007 there's always been a lot of players that have played through a lot, [Patrice] Bergeron, [Mark] Recchi and those kinds of guys. If you're a young player [then you need to] recognize that this is what you do if you can do it. I certainly hope someday that [Chara] retires as a Boston Bruin. He's done so much for this organization and he really helped turn things around [for the franchise] when he got here. He's been a great ambassador, not only for us with the Bruins and for this city but for the game itself."
Chara still averaged 21:05 of ice time per game as a top-4 defenseman for the Black and Gold, but it was also the lowest ice time total of his 20-year career as younger players like Brandon Carlo, Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy surpassed him in the ice time department. It will be interesting to see where Chara slots in if contract issues with McAvoy or Carlo spill into the regular season, and how much extra burden falls on his shoulders until things are resolved with the young D-men.
All things being equal, however, the Bruins are consciously going to manage Chara's minutes and workload coming off a two-month playoff run, and attempt to put him in the best position to succeed as the oldest player in the NHL. The reality is that Chara may continue to miss some games due to injuries as has been the case in the last couple of seasons since getting on the wrong side of 40 years old. There may even be times when the prudent choice would be to rest a proud competitor like Chara if the Bruins have their depth fully intact once McAvoy and Carlo are fully back in the fold.
Whatever the case, the Bruins will again rely on Chara for defense, leadership and 20 minutes per night while setting the tone from a toughness standout as well.
Key Stat: 11.4 – the number of games missed per season over the last five years for Chara, who is clearly starting to show some wear and tear with his 42-year-old body still playing a key role for the Black and Gold.
Chara in his own words: "I think I'm able to tolerate pain. I was just able to focus on the game ahead of us. You have to accept that the game and sports will bring some pain, and those are sacrifices you have to be willing to accept."
The biggest question he faces: How much can Chara sustain his game at 42 years old in a league that grows faster and more skill-oriented with each passing season? He's still a superior penalty killer and a feared defender around the net and is extremely effective when he's rested. But injuries are coming with higher frequency now and sustaining his performance in the playoff grind is always going to be a challenge.
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