Unless they’re named Jaromir Jagr or Tom Brady, turning 40 tends to mark the last hoorah of a professional athlete’s career.
Well, we might have to add Zdeno Chara to the list of players who just keep on playing. Drafted 56th overall by the New York Islanders in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, the 6-foot-9-inch, 250-pound defenseman is in the midst of his 20th NHL season – and he will likely be asked to play more.
The Boston Bruins are feeling the growing pains this year. Some nights they seem to be on top of the world, like on Monday night when they thwarted the Columbus Blue Jackets 7-2. On others, they have difficulty dealing with bottom-feeders like the Buffalo Sabres, with Tuesday’s 3-0 win coming with an asterisk in the form of two empty-netters.
This is to be expected when your lineup features rookie defensemen like Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk and rookie forwards like Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, and Sean Kuraly; and that’s not even counting the slew of youngsters who saw time during the injury plague Boston endured in the first months of the season.
While the Bruins will eventually need to seek a long-term solution on defense, some have been calling for an upgrade at the forward position. This is where Chara’s contract extension becomes a priority.
Zdeno Chara Has Still Got It
This writer has not been Chara’s biggest fan the past few seasons. He’s slowed down (as we all do with age), but furthermore, his play with the puck can be costly. Still, I can’t name another defenseman on the Bruins’ roster that I would feel comfortable placing on McAvoy’s left side to fend off opponents’ top forwards.
While Tory Krug can keep pace offensively on that top pair, do you really want him going toe-to-toe with Nikita Kucherov, Auston Matthews, or Jack Eichel? Each of whom the Bruins have to deal with four times a year? No, that’s what Chara is for.
Widely considered a two-way defenseman in his prime, “Z” (as his teammates call him) has now become a shutdown defensive-defenseman and penalty-killing connoisseur. Even if that means decreasing his ice time, which seems to be happening anyway with 19-year-old McAvoy and 26-year-old Krug usurping duties on Boston’s power play. In fact, since Chara logged over 27 minutes against the Philadelphia Flyers on Dec. 2, he has not played more than 22:20 in a single game until Tuesday night’s clash in Buffalo.
During the 2006-07 season, the captain’s first campaign in Boston, Chara averaged nearly 28 minutes per game. By the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup victory, No. 33 was averaging just under 25:30 minutes which dwindled to 23:20 last season – the lowest since his first campaign with the Ottawa Senators in 2001-02.
Extending the contract of a defenseman who was born in the same year that Led Zeppelin last toured North America, would not be to play him more than 20 minutes per game. In reality, McAvoy has started taking over the extra minutes, averaging 22:28 of ice time per game since Dec. 2.
Bruins’ Recipe for Success
Despite some defensive prospects coming up the pike, the Bruins are going to need to find a left-defenseman to play alongside McAvoy when Chara hangs up his skates. But how feasible is that, at least at this juncture?
In order to go after a top-two defenseman in the NHL, one must give up a lot. Luckily, Boston’s plethora of rookies leads to a surplus of draft picks. However, draft picks alone would not net such a return, so the B’s will likely have to weave a package that includes picks and players. This is where patience is General Manager Don Sweeney’s best friend.
For starters, let’s look at the salary cap. When Adam McQuaid returns from injury the Bruins will have under $300,000 to work with. How on earth are you going to bring in a set piece with such little room and still expect to re-sign players on expiring deals?
This will enable Boston’s GM to decide just who he’s willing to part with. It is hard to predict the kind of player a rookie will be, even just two or three years down the road. Nonetheless, a full season in the NHL can help determine which players are likely to take on a permanent role and those who will remain in Providence due to a surplus of young skaters.
This is also when you offer Chara a one-year contract extension worth a $4 million cap hit, or preferably less. Considering Chara’s storied career in Boston, he may be willing to take a pay cut for the city he’s called home for the past 12 seasons.
Once Chara is officially under contract for the 2018-19 season, that frees things up for the Bruins to pursue a forward. I would not expect a forward acquisition at the trade deadline to be more than a rental player. The fanbase is expecting a second-round playoff appearance, and they are going to need a steady hand in their middle six to ensure that happens.
While all of these young forwards have tremendous skill, they are still learning how critical a two-way game is in the NHL. Bringing in a veteran on an expiring (or otherwise affordable) contract will bolster Boston’s consistency, both in their own zone as well as their opponents’.
In order to do so, the Bruins could part with one of their own expiring contracts. Ryan Spooner and Frank Vatrano are both set to be restricted free agents at the end of this season and could be of value to a team looking to swap a younger forward for an older one.
Depth players such as Noel Acciari are also not out of the question, especially if you’re receiving another bottom-six forward in return. Then there is the aforementioned surplus of prospects in Providence competing for an NHL call-up and also late-round draft picks, but they would need to be part of a package in order to clear enough cap space to take on another contract.
In case you are not yet convinced that extending Chara’s contract is a good idea, consider how much McAvoy is learning from his partner, not to mention the fact that the two are proving to be a solid tandem. Whether you like it or not, the Bruins are still in the latter stages of a rebuild, and while this team continues to take shape, it may benefit them to keep their captain around – at least for one more campaign.