Right now, especially in the wake of Saturday’s 5-0 whitewash of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Boston Bruins do not have a pressing cause for concern over Zdeno Chara’s effectiveness. With a 5-2-0 start, they currently have a nonissue in their captain, defensive cornerstone and general centerpiece’s uncharacteristic leakiness.
Their self-imposed question, though, should revolve around how they can ensure that leaking crack remains a nonissue for the balance of the 2013-14 NHL season.
What do this leaking crack and uncharacteristic performance entail? Simply a higher rate of defensive setbacks on Chara’s watch than on any other Bruin blueliner’s watch or than what good, heavily leaned-on defensemen, Chara included, tend to authorize.
The only logical cause of this trend is carryover fatigue from last year’s unusual sprinting marathon. Boston’s higher-ups appear to have already caught on to that, giving Chara a minor shave in nightly ice time, as csnne.com’s Joe Haggerty recently reported on.
General manager Peter Chiarelli told Haggerty that keeping the towering captain’s nightly minutes below 24 is “…solely by design…He’s certainly capable of playing 26, 27, 28 minutes. We’d rather have that in the chamber for later on, so we’ve been doing that by design.”
In Haggerty’s own words, “It remains to be seen if they’d actually scratch him for a game or two during the year.”
The mild cut in playing time may, for the team’s sake, be the right course now. But as they delve deeper into a season that is not yet three weeks old, the Bruins should explore the option of giving Chara sporadic healthy scratches.
An opportune time to experiment with that approach would be in one half of any given set of back-to-back game nights. The first of those pairs on Boston’s schedule comes Wednesday and Thursday with a visit to Buffalo and a prompt return home to engage the Sharks.
Because of Chara’s literally and figuratively enormous tangibles and intangibles, one could understand if the Bruins brass elects not to hold him out. Nevertheless, it would likely work in their best long-term interest all around if they occasionally asked their other six rostered rearguards to step up a little more.
As much as they may want to have the long-tenured Chara’s active presence at their constant disposal, preserving him for the homestretch and playoffs is more important. That will, after all, be the time when getting the most out of his assets will be most pivotal to Boston’s cause.
In that vein, given the rate of his early output, the obvious culprit behind it and what lies ahead in the coming six-plus months, this scrape could escalate to a lesion if left unattended.
Here are the statistical specifics behind the scrape in question: Chara has been on the ice for seven opposing goals in 167:15 of ice time so far. That is 70 percent of the opposition’s offensive production.
Plug those numbers into the goals-against average formula and he has a 2.51 GAA, which is rather swollen by his standards.
It could be worse, but could also be better. The Bruins must remain attentive to at least ensure the former does not come to fruition.
This is by no means a product of a team-wide defensive letdown. Take Chara’s teammates’ minutes and total goals-against, apply them to the same formula and the second-highest GAA among Boston blueliners belongs to Matt Bartkowski (2.47).
Among the team’s other top-four defensemen, Johnny Boychuk boasts a median of 1.68 opposing goals for every 60 minutes played. Torey Krug’s average is 1.47 while Dennis Seidenberg has an otherworldly 0.76 with only two goals in his first 158 minutes and 32 seconds.
Oh, and entering Sunday night’s NHL action, Boston led the league with a 1.43 team GAA.
Chara’s choppy results are also not attributable to playing the most minutes on his team or being assigned to curb the opposition’s top scorers. That theory is moot because of what he has posted in the past (more on that in a moment) as well as the early output of other league minute-munchers.
Here are just five busy blueliners and their respective GAA, as this author calculated before Sunday’s games and all better than their team’s collective stinginess rate: Ryan Suter (1.82), Dion Phaneuf (1.89), Kevin Bieksa (1.99), Christian Ehrhoff (2.12) and Shea Weber (2.34).
Ordinarily, Chara is somewhere in that neighborhood. The only time he has not been there at the end of a season in his Bruins tenure was the Dave Lewis disaster of 2006-07, when 127 blunders in 2,237:19 amounted to a 3.41 GAA (the team combined for 3.48).
In his first seven full seasons since coming to Boston, Chara has retained a GAA that was better than the team’s four times. The rest of the time, he has stayed within a reasonable radius of the Bruins’ collective rate.
|Season||Ice Time||Goals Against||Chara's GAA||Boston's GAA|
Over the first six seasons of the Claude Julien era, Chara has kept his final average below 2.50 five times. The only exception was 2011-12, when the Bruins were coming off their Stanley Cup victory and he retained a 2.58 stinginess rate.
Residual wear and tear did not push him too far beyond the boundaries of top-notch efficiency that year. Even so, there is more reason for the Boston staff to guard against cumulative fatigue in 2013-14 than there was two seasons ago.
Chara, like the rest of Boston’s returnees, had less time to recover from their 2013 run than from their 2011 tournament. Last season was a start-to-finish sprint compacting 70 games into five months.
It ended on June 24, a mere 79 days before this year’s training camp commenced and 101 days before the current regular season opened. In 2011, there was a 116-day gap between the Bruins raising the Cup and raising the banner.
To add to the uniqueness of 2013-14, the 36-year-old Chara is auditioning for yet another Olympic gig with his native Slovakia. If he earns it, he will take a two-way, transcontinental journey enveloping two weeks of competition while the majority of his major league mates are taking advantage of a respite.
With all of that potential activity in the near future piling on top of the intensive, arguably unmatched activity from the near past, cutbacks of one or two minutes per night will not likely suffice for long.
Barring any schedule changes, the Bruins will have 17 sets of consecutive game days/nights beginning in the middle of this week. If it suits a given matchup, one half of many of those pairs will likely be the go-to times to rest the roster’s biggest minute-muncher, namely starting goaltender Tuukka Rask.
Given what he has recently been through, what he will likely soon go through and his trajectory, it only makes sense if they do the same for their biggest minute-munching skater. At least doing so for between one-third and half of those back-to-backs could prove a prudent method of curtailing more physical taxation, if not building more wind for later.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com and are through games of Saturday, October 19.