With less than two weeks to go before the NHL trade deadline, it is time to hunker down in the war room and find the final pieces for a Stanley Cup team. For the Boston Bruins, a recent hot streak has assuaged some fears that a lack of secondary scoring could lead to an early exit in the playoffs. Rather than swinging for the fences, more subtle, complimentary moves could help solidify the Bruins’ roster as they push for the Cup.
One name that could be linked to Boston is the Bruins former captain, current New York Islander defenseman, Zdeno Chara. He is currently on injured reserve, but a return is expected this season. It is worth investigating the pros and cons of a reunion between Chara and the Bruins.
Pros for the Bruins
Who wouldn’t love a return of the longtime captain? Sure he is 43, but he still has game left, albeit in a more reserved role. As a former Bruin who has played for years under Bruce Cassidy and the systems in place, the adjustment period should be minimal. On top of the comfort factor, Chara has never lost his physical side. As he has aged and lost a stride in his skating, he has amped up the physical nature, showing more and more willingness to fight this year. He even fought the night after he broke the record for most games played by an NHL defenseman!
If there is ever a night where steering clear of extra hits or getting punched in the face would be understood, that would have been one of those nights. Not for Chara, who was in the middle of things mixing it up yet again.
The Hollywood appeal of bringing back Zdeno Chara is undeniable, but this move also makes hockey sense. He is a huge body who would fit in on the third pair immediately. He is not the top-four defenseman the team may crave, but as a safe depth piece, it could be worthwhile.
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Chara would likely be an affordable option as he is 43 on an expiring deal for a losing team. In my mind, Chara could be had for a mid-round or late-round pick. Ideally, the Bruins could send a fifth-round pick to the Islanders to make this deal happen. The move would help the Bruins improve their current team without hurting their prospect pool or strong future assets.
The Bruins’ draft history has been far from ideal. This record only gets worse as the rounds go on, so losing a fifth-round pick for an established pro is a very reasonable trade. Worst case scenario, the Bruins may have to slide this fifth-round pick up one round to the fourth round. The argument still stands. Statistically, there are not many players drafted near the end of the fourth round who turn into high impact players. This is not to say the pick is a throwaway, but the Bruins window to win another Cup is closing as key pieces like Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron continue to age. This pick may be the price to pay for a realistic push towards a competitive playoff run.
Cons for the Bruins
To start with, he is currently injured. One game after his record-setting night, Chara left the Islanders’ Feb. 26 game against the Los Angeles Kings with an upper-body injury. There is always risk with trading for an injured player, a risk that is only amplified when that player is 43. On top of the risk to any player, if Chara is being brought in as a physical presence, it is reason enough to pause in that he may aggravate the injury again and end up not being able to add any of the attributes he was brought in for.
Another area of concern is the usage Chara has seen in New York. For a player being acquired to solidify a defensive unit, Chara is sheltered from tougher matchups on his current team. According to The Athletic, the Islanders have deployed Chara against “grit” lines 47% of the time (from: ‘ The Athletic , “Which NHL defencemen have (and haven’t) earned their coach’s trust? Analyzing matchup data from all 32 teams,” Feb. 22, 2022) He has drawn “mid” lines, think middle six, serviceable options but not necessarily dangerous scoring lines, 31% of the time. The final 22% of his time has been against the “elite” competition of an opponent’s top line. Granted, Chara is not going to be expected to curtail elite competition, but the fact he has been restrained to merely tackling a team’s bottom line is worth noting.
There is reason to think Chara can handle stronger competition, especially pulling from the “mid” level, hopefully narrowing the 16% gap between grit and mid lines. Maybe there is a way to keep him at those levels during even strength play, but allow him to face stronger competition on a penalty-kill unit. The Bruins could continue to limit his overall minutes to around 18 per game, in line with what the Islanders are asking of him. If he can play two to three minutes on the penalty kill on any given night, with an extra 15 at even strength, Chara could prove incredibly useful to the Bruins.
A final concern is something outside of Chara’s control. He is a left-handed shot, most comfortable as a left defenseman, and the Bruins need more help on the right side of the blue line. This is not a dealbreaker, but Boston would have to seriously evaluate what playing a left shot on their off-side would look like. Urho Vaakanainen has shown promise in this role playing with Derek Forbort on the Bruins’ third pair for much of the team’s success during the middle half of the season before an injury sidelined Vaakanainen. Whether Mike Reilly can make a similar transition remains to be seen.
Chara also would fill a very similar role to Forbort as the shut-down defender tasked with penalty killing and playing heavy minutes protecting a lead. As mentioned above, Chara brings physicality that few players can match, Forbort being one of them. This physicality would differentiate the two and allow for each to retain an important role on the blue line, but it would alter the makeup of the back end. Rather than a dynamic group that may lean towards an offensive bend with the presence of Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzlyck, Vaakanainen, and Reilly, the defense would appear to add less of a scoring punch. The defensive corps would instead feature stay-at-home, defensive defensemen like Brandon Carlo, Forbort, and then Chara.
What Should the Bruins Do?
In short, it depends. If the Bruins can talk the Islanders into a fifth-round pick, even if it is a conditional pick, say a conditional fifth that would switch to a fourth-round pick if the Bruins reached the Eastern Conference Final, then pull the trigger. Late-round drafting is an inexact science, and a proven commodity that can actively contribute to a playoff push is more important in my eyes than a future potential asset. This all hinges on Chara’s health also. He is a fitness freak who, assuming the injury is not serious, should be able to return this season and add value to a team.
Even if Chara comes back healthy, if the Islanders are asking for any pick above the fourth-round, or a combination of a second draft pick or a prospect, it will be time to hang up the phone and move on to another option. As much as Boston loves Chara, there are other younger options.
Let’s see what Don Sweeney can pull off before March 21. Hopefully Chara can make his return to the Bruins, so long as the price remains tolerable.
Vince Reilly covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Vince graduated from Grinnell College with a Bachelors in History and Political Science and earned a Masters in Sports Administration from Belmont University. He has worked in the Predators Front Office on Analytics and Operations, with Major League Baseball in Replay, and now with Tufts University as a Director of Hockey Analytics. Vince can always be found with a coffee in hand and he promises his sarcastic tone will always shine through his work.