I will readily admit that I thought this season would be Zdeno Chara’s swan song. Yes, he’s a fitness freak with one of the most unique frames in NHL history, but he’s 41 years old with more than 1,400 hard games under his belt already. I assumed that the young and spritely Charlie McAvoy would do all the skating on Boston’s new No. 1 tandem, allowing Chara to use his reach and physicality to mask his own lack of speed.
But guess what? Chara looks fine. More than fine, in fact. If his little rush and snipe on Toronto’s Frederik Andersen in Game 3 of the Bruins-Leafs series is any indication, Chara isn’t settling for a rocking chair. And the fact he is still playing at a high level is a testament to the work he puts in.
“He’s one of the best defensemen to ever play,” said left winger Brad Marchand. “To this day he continually wants to improve his play. He steps up at the right time. He’s a big part of our team on and off the ice and he’s our captain. He leads by example.”
Once again, Chara led the Bruins in time on ice this season with an average workload of 22:54 per outing. Sure, it’s not the 25 minutes he logged during his peak (right around the time Boston won the Stanley Cup, not coincidentally), but it’s still pretty good. It also speaks to the depth that coach Bruce Cassidy can draw from on the back end.
There are numerous reasons why Chara is still so effective at an age when most hockey players are retired from the pro game and his natural gifts are just one. He has also made a big dietary change recently, once again speaking to the commitment the Slovakian legend has for his craft. And make no mistake: McAvoy has been the perfect foil for the veteran.
“He’s playing well, he’s obviously a very talented player,” Chara said. “He has made big strides since he came into the league and you can see the improvements he is making. He’s already a great player, but he’ll be even better.”
Chara recently signed a one-year extension with the Bruins worth $5 million and that should give the team enough runway for McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Matt Grzelcyk to really take hold of the defense corps as Boston’s next generation (Torey Krug, among others, will continue to provide the experienced sinew that connects it all together). That is, of course, unless Chara re-signs again after that.
What the veteran has proven is just how ageless he really is. Think about it this way: Chara’s first playoff matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs was way back in 2002, when he was a member of the Ottawa Senators. He was good then and he’s still good now.
“He’s an asset in any series,” Cassidy said. “Former Norris Trophy winner, captain of our hockey club, defends well, kills penalties. I’m stating the obvious, but he’s an asset back there.”
Chara is undoubtedly a first-ballot Hall of Famer and with one Cup ring already, he has been to the top of the mountain (he has also literally been to the top of a mountain, but that’s another story altogether). But he is clearly still engaged in the game and I’m sure he’d love to bring the title back to Boston at least one more time. Toronto just happens to be the first team in his way right now.
“It’s like any other series; it’s a battle,” he said. “At this time of the year you’re going to see pushback.”
And who better to thwart that pushback than one of the biggest and strongest players in NHL history?