New York Islanders fans didn’t have to wait long for general manager Lou Lamoriello to sign a defender after he solidified the forward group earlier this month, officially signing Zdeno Chara to a one-year deal (terms undisclosed). This rights a nearly two-decade wrong when Chara was traded to the Ottawa Senators by then-general manager Mike Milbury in 2001, one of his worst Islanders’ trades of all time. With Chara added to the Islanders, what does this mean for the lineup? Let’s dive in.
Islanders Defense Solidified, For Now
What we have on paper right now very well may be what we see on opening night, even if it means Chara, who will turn 45 during the 2021-22 season, is in the lineup with Andy Greene, about to turn 39 in October. A third-round selection (No. 56) by the Islanders in the 1996 NHL Draft, Chara still averaged over 18 minutes a night with the Washington Capitals last season and a hair over 21 minutes a night the two seasons prior with the Boston Bruins. He’s proven he can play well past 40 years old, and head coach Barry Trotz is known for getting the most out of his players up and down the lineup, so this signing might be a good match.
Signing Chara to, presumably, play with Scott Mayfield doesn’t necessarily mean he’s locked into second pairing minutes. Trotz may find that giving the Greene-Noah Dobson pairing equal footing with Mayfield and Chara ensures both can find success. Dobson only averaged 16:24 TOI last season, with Greene playing a bit more at 17:35. It’s also possible both Chara and Greene take turns in the press box to preserve them for the playoffs, giving Sebastian Aho or Thomas Hickey a game here or there to give the veterans a rest, though the latter is less likely.
There’s also Erik Gustafsson to consider, who just signed a PTO with the Islanders after splitting time with the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens last season. Could he wind up being the Islanders’ seventh defender, putting Aho and Hickey in the AHL? Aho, like all of the Islanders this season, save for Oliver Wahlstrom, requires waivers. Do the Islanders risk losing him? It’s a difficult situation for Lamoriello to navigate, though it could open up some cap space even if it meant losing some depth.
Either way, it will be interesting to see how Trotz uses Chara. Special teams have been an issue for the Islanders over the last few seasons, and Chara isn’t likely to help despite his booming slapshot. He’s recorded just four power play points over the last four seasons. He does add an element of toughness, which has helped the Islanders get through a few difficult playoff series with the Bruins, Flyers, and Capitals the last two seasons.
This also marks a large shift in playing style for the Islanders back end, moving from Nick Leddy, a swift-skating offensive-minded defenseman, to Chara, a tougher and much older stay-at-home defender. What’s interesting, though, is that Chara’s and Leddy’s underlying numbers point to the former having a bit of an edge, despite his age and lack of skating ability when compared to Leddy. It’s also expected this contract will be for a fairly low amount, if not the league minimum. If Lamoriello can ship out a contract or two in the meantime to free up some space, he can still make a trade if things don’t work out as planned.
Back Where It Started
It’s clear Chara is excited to be playing on Long Island again and perhaps happier still that it’ll be in a new arena. In an Instagram post after the team announced the signing, he posted a photo of him with his old Islanders jerseys and a caption reading, “I had to get some dust off them, but sure they still looking good!”
“It’s kind of a full circle,” Chara said. “Who would [have known] this would work out the way it did after 20-something years. I’m certainly very honored and humbled to be an Islander again. Obviously, the organization went through some transitions over the course of 20 years, but we all see the progress and the positivity with where the team is at.”From, Chara agrees to contract with Islanders, will play 24th NHL season, NHL.com 9/18/2021
On his call with the media on Saturday, Chara said, “I love the game. I have passion [sic] for the game, and I believe I can still play. That’s all you need.” For the way the Islanders play, specifically in the playoffs, that should be music to fans’ ears. Now, the real question is — what number will he wear? Will he go back to 53 from his rookie year or stick with 33? We’ll find out soon with training camp underway in less than a week.
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Jon Zella is a 30-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.