Had one asked almost anyone about Zdeno Chara’s future at the end of the 2014-15 campaign, the answer likely would've been that the Boston Bruins captain wasn’t only in the back nine of his career, but strolling to the clubhouse.
At the time, Chara was a 38-year-old rearguard who, for the first time in his career, missed a significant amount of time due to injury. He was showing signs of slowing down, his offensive production had dipped, his ice time was down, and – despite being one season removed from finishing second in Norris Trophy voting – the consensus was that Chara’s game had fallen off enough that it might be time to talk about retirement.
It was a fair conversation to have. Not many defensemen play, or play effectively, that late into their careers. Chara had nearly 1,200 games under his belt and many of those came in years when he was one of the league’s biggest workhorses, as evidenced by the fact his average ice time was nearly 26 minutes per game across an 11-season span ending in 2014. Chara had a good run, so to mention his retirement as he crept close to 40 wasn’t out of line.
Yet here we are, more than two-and-a-half years later, and it sure seems as though Chara’s time wearing the spoked 'B' is set to continue.
At present, Chara is playing out the final season of a slightly back-diving seven-year, $45-million contract he signed with Boston in October 2010. Some believed that the final year of the pact might mean the 40-year-old, who will turn 41 before the 2017-18 campaign concludes, could be skating in his final season. But instead, all signs point to the Bruins bringing him back.
Prior to the start of this season, Don Sweeney was asked about the potential to bring Chara back, to which the Bruins GM responded that he and Chara have had some discussions about keeping the towering defenseman in town beyond 2017-18. And while he said there’s no timetable — which is to say a deal could come next week, next month or next summer — Sweeney said he has no questions about Chara’s ability to contribute to the team. It appears that’s still the case through the early season, too, as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported on the weekend that Sweeney stuck to those comments, adding he has no plan to move Chara and plans to re-sign the Bruins captain at some point. And, quite frankly, why wouldn’t he try to keep ‘Big Z’?
While there’s an argument to be made about Chara losing a step or generally regressing, it’s not as though he has gone from a Norris Trophy-contending defenseman to a healthy scratch over the course of a few years. Sure, Chara’s unlikely to add a second Norris to his trophy case, but as far as assisting the Bruins' blueline goes, he’s still got a lot to give. In 155 games over the past two seasons, he’s amassed 19 goals and 66 points, 43rd-most among all defensemen, and he’s still playing meaningful minutes in Boston, even if it is slightly fewer per game.
Though still early, Chara is averaging nearly 22 minutes per game on the Boston blueline. That’s a far cry from the 25-plus minutes he logged during his prime, but through five games — yes, a small sample — Chara is taking on heavier minutes than any other Bruins blueliner. (The next-closest defenseman is rookie Charlie McAvoy, who's averaging a full 70 seconds less per outing.) Chara's production has been solid early on, too, with one goal, three points and seven shots through five outings, and he's been effective at getting the puck away from the Bruins’ net. He’s facing the second-toughest quality of competition thus far, but his 54.1 Corsi For percentage is second-best among Bruins defensemen.
Should we really be surprised, though? Since the end of the 2013-14 campaign, when those first earnest discussions about Chara’s retirement started to pop up, he has continued to take on tough zone starts against the toughest competition of any rearguard in Boston. And while his possession metrics aren’t tops among his fellow blueliners, his 51 Corsi For percentage over the past two seasons is proof enough he can still hang.
Chara’s benefit, as most everyone knows, goes well beyond statistics. He offers mentorship for young players and, most importantly, can help guide the likes of McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. Both can be part of the future nucleus of the Bruins’ defense and with Chara in town to take them under his wing, Boston can rest assured that they’re getting guidance from a player who will shepherd them into top-four roles.
One important question to answer when it comes to extending Chara, as it is with all players in the salary cap era, is the price. One wouldn’t expect the Bruins to be all that open to bringing him back on a deal that pays in the $6.9-million range, which is what he earned on average in each of the past six seasons. Instead, getting him to sign on at $4 million, which he’s making this season, would be more palatable for a few reasons. First, the Bruins are projected to have less than $15 million in cap space were the cap to remain flat, which dips to, say, $11 million with Chara at a $4-million salary next year. Anything more costly wouldn’t allow much wiggle room for the Bruins to retain players — they have seven pending free agents, restricted and unrestricted — nor does it leave much cap space for the Bruins to make any type of splash in the summer.
But this hardly feels like a Andrei Markov-esque situation where money will get between the two sides. Even if it does take until next summer, it feels as though it’s only a matter of time before Chara signs on to remain in Boston next season and potentially beyond. In a way, Chara is the NHL's Jaromir Jagr of the blueline, and if he can keep proving he can play well into his mid-40s, there’s no reason the Bruins shouldn’t be interested in bring him back.
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