Though he’s played with two other NHL teams throughout his storied career, it often feels as though Zdeno Chara has been a lifelong Boston Bruin.
He has borne the captain’s C for the B’s since signing with the team in 2006. Now entering his 14th season with Boston, the 6-foot-9-inch giant is the oldest active player in the league at the age of 42.
‘Big Z’, as his teammates call him, has remained on the Bruins’ top defensive-pairing in each of the past 13 seasons. Since his 1999-00 campaign with the New York Islanders, Chara has averaged more than 20 minutes per game in 19 consecutive seasons.
Throughout his career in Boston, the big man has logged 23,678 regular-season minutes in 955 contests – an average of nearly 25 minutes per game. The Slovakian also touts a plus-214 rating in a black and gold sweater. His career plus-minus of plus-262 is the best among the NHL’s active players.
However, Chara is nearing the end of the road. The blueliner’s cap hit plummeted to a team-friendly $4 million for the 2017-18 season. Since then, he has continued to remain below his previous cap hit of $6.9 million. Last season he raked in $5 million and will now be hitting Boston’s cap for just $2 million this season.
This isn’t to say Chara’s value to the Bruins is reflected by his salary; the discounts are more likely occurring in order to allow the B’s to free up space and reel in more skilled players. This might indicate that Chara knows the end is in sight, and if he’s going to take home another Stanley Cup, the time is now.
Wear & Tear
In four of the last five seasons, Chara has appeared in 75 games or less. The defenseman has gone down with multiple injuries during that time and it seems to be taking a toll on him. He averaged 21:05 in ice time with the Bruins last season – the lowest since his 1998-99 campaign.
While he was (by far) never the fastest skater in the league, Chara has certainly been moving a lot slower. Throughout his career, his most lethal weapon has been his size and reach. With this, he has been able to keep oncoming opponents in check. Now, with the league getting faster by the season, these seem to be the only attributes keeping him afloat – that and a high Hockey IQ. However, even that can’t help him catch up to the flashy and speedy young forwards in the league today.
In the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, Chara went down with a gruesome injury. A puck to the face broke his jaw. Much like past injuries, the tough man played through it, but you have to wonder how much more the body of a 42-year-old can endure.
Chara does have one of the most rigorous training schedules in the league. It is a huge reason why the blueliner didn’t hang up his skates years ago. He has shown admiration for fellow 42-year-old Boston athlete Tom Brady; both operate on similar regimens when it comes to eating and training that are amongst the strictest in their professions. This eat-well, train-hard lifestyle is what has kept both players on the playing surface past the age of 40.
With that said, how many more games will it take for Chara’s body to reach its maximum capacity in terms of workload? The former Norris Trophy winner hasn’t been in the conversation for the award since claiming the runner-up position in 2014. While his performance has remained fair, it’s only a matter of time before he simply can’t continue logging enough minutes to keep him on the top pair.
The Bruins have a very good problem on their hands in the form of depth along the blue line. They already have a handful of NHL-ready defensemen fighting for a starting role this summer, and now there is a slew of prospects ready to make the jump into the big leagues.
It’s clear that there just isn’t enough room for everyone, and Chara is taking up one of the most coveted spots on the roster. The Slovakian’s exit would free up a spot, but even then the Bruins would likely have to move on from some of their prospects. That is unless they’re content with keeping some of them in the minors for a few more seasons – something said prospects may not have the patience for.
While Chara has remained worthy of his role, he could be holding some of Boston’s blooming blueliners back. If he continues to lead his team deep into the playoffs, this isn’t an issue. However, if Chara’s performance begins to tank, it would be wise of the Bruins to cut ties with him – even if the big man is not ready to hang up his skates.
This is the beauty of the agreement to take things year-by-year. Boston isn’t tied down by a lengthy contract with Chara, meaning they don’t need to worry about a future buyout. The B’s can also work their cap with ease – if there’s enough room for Chara they can re-sign him, if not then they aren’t stuck with him.
The question is how long both parties will continue to come back to the table. Just like every athlete in professional sports, Chara would prefer to go out on top. If he hadn’t signed an extension prior to the 2019 postseason, and if the Bruins had won Game 7 against the St. Louis Blues, this article might never have been written.
Boston is shaping up to be a similar 2019-20 team to the one that came within one game of a Stanley Cup title last season. The younger players now have a wealth of playoff experience under there belts. The veterans, on the other hand, are another year older, another year wiser, but perhaps another year slower.
The Bruins are certainly contenders for the Cup once again this season. However, the window is closing for Boston’s veterans – especially their captain. Knowing the blueliner’s determination and strength, he might just continue playing until his body gives out. In fact, prior to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Chara stated “I want to continue playing. I believe I have a lot left…” However, if another lengthy postseason is in the cards, this could be Chara’s last tour of duty – win or lose.
I cover the Boston Bruins and NCAA Hockey here at The Hockey Writers. Born and raised 10 miles north of Boston, I developed a love for the game of ice hockey at a very young age. There’s really nothing better than this sport, though steak is a close second.