Towering veteran Zdeno Chara still has plenty of tangible and intangible stock to offer the Boston Bruins. He just does not have quite as much as he once did and will not have that much at any time going forward.
If the outcome of the 2013-14 NHL season told the Bruins anything, it is that the time for compromise is approaching. The question for 2014-15 is how soon and to what extent they should sacrifice some of the intangible investment to preserve Chara’s prowess.
That prowess is still available in copious quantities, for the most part.
With 72 opposing goals over 1,898 minutes and 19 seconds of cumulative ice time, Chara retained a 2.28 goals-against average in the last regular season. A few layers higher than the team average of 2.08, but hardly egregious.
He achieved that while tackling the task of anchoring a Boston blue-line brigade that lost substantial experience to season-ending injuries. Partnering with Dougie Hamilton, he helped a stable of stand-ins bring stability for much of the ride.
Adding to the decibels that speak to Chara’s resolve, he turned 37 this past March on the heels of a midseason business trip to the Sochi Olympics. That was all on the heels of a draining run to the 2013 Stanley Cup Final and the short summer that came with it.
For that, Boston’s captain of the last eight years earned another Norris nomination, although Chicago’s Duncan Keith deservingly won the derby. His runner-up status was his reward for defying the laws of energy during the past campaign.
But the final win-loss impressions for the team and the individual are serving to presage the 6’9” Slovak’s decline.
For the second straight season, the Bruins bowed out of the playoffs with a speedier squad getting the better of them. On both occasions, Chara drew his share of the postmortem scrutiny, the glare of his fatigue rivaling the red light behind Tuukka Rask.
That does not diminish anything that he achieved during the 2013-14 regular season, when his performance deflected proposals for rest. The surprise sticks within the captain’s personification of Boston’s run to the NHL’s best record.
But given the reputation they have sculpted for the better part of Chara’s captaincy, the Bruins were supposed to do more in the spring. The fact that their designated leader and top minute-munching skater sputtered a second time warrants reexamination.
Whether or not he senses it, let alone cares to admit it, Chara’s job title as captain comes with pressure. That pressure amplifies the challenge of playing in the range of 24 or 25 minutes per night.
While that did not bear him down in previous years, particularly 2010-11, not much will spare him in the present or future. The older he gets and the more mileage he logs, the more his age will jut in defining moments.
This postseason trend is not likely to recede, but Chara’s caliber of skills and dependability around midseason eventually will. Starting no later than a year from now, the Bruins brass can start to address that by initiating a gradual leadership transition.
The other piece is already in place with soon-to-be 29-year-old forward Patrice Bergeron barely hovering at the halfway mark of his career. The two-way connoisseur is coming off three consecutive Selke Trophy nominations, with two victories sandwiching a second-place finish.
Bergeron has also been a full-time alternate captain since 2006 and holds the only active tenure with the Bruins longer than Chara’s. It only dates back to his first professional season in 2003-04.
At their respective stages, Bergeron and Chara’s leadership qualities are too close to contrast. But do note that, as the league’s official website states with no room for gray interpretation, “No co-Captains are permitted.” Therefore there cannot be a repeat of when Rick Middleton and Ray Bourque split the captaincy from 1985-86 through 1987-88.
But there is no reason why Chara could not accept an eventual change in classification while he is still active. Other teams, such as the Colorado Avalanche with Gabriel Landeskog and Milan Hejduk, have taken that approach in this decade.
Per CapGeek, Chara is under contract for four more seasons and the coming campaign will mark his first of three yearly income reductions in that span.
He will go from grossing $8 million in 2013-14 to $7 million in each of the next two years. He is due for a $5 million salary in 2016-17, then $4 million in 2017-18, at which point he will turn 41.
The second, and heftiest, of those year-to-year pay cuts currently projects to be the ideal time for Chara’s “C” to morph to an “A.” There is no cause for the Bruins to plunge into this no-brainer swap of the letters of leadership right away.
Having four months of recuperation this summer, as opposed to the less than three months of last summer, will be advantageous for Chara. Fewer minutes and a handful of healthy scratches ought to be a less prominent proposition in 2014-15.
But they will not vanish on a permanent basis. Whether they entail a handful of rest nights, a de-escalated slot on the depth chart or both, the proposals will persist.
Depending especially on how deep the Bruins go in the 2015 playoffs, slowing down the byproducts of Chara’s age will be a surefire necessity by 2015-16. Meanwhile, if all goes according to plan, Hamilton is going to burgeon as the anchor of the defense.
With those developments, the season after the approaching one should entail sporadic chances for the likes of Bergeron to be the de facto top leader on the ice. That would be a reasonable way to bridge him to a formal, full-time captaincy effective at the start of 2016-17.
Barring any extensions or transactions, that will be Chara’s penultimate playing campaign. Anybody with an informed understanding of the incumbent captain’s character can safely assume he would accept this four-year outline.
Unless otherwise indicated all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com