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Is This Zdeno Chara's Last Ride?

With the New York Islanders eliminated from playoff contention, will Zdeno Chara call it a career at season's end?
Zdeno Chara

What more does Zdeno Chara have to play for? 

It's a question that seems rudimentary at first  -- every player plays for the love of the game, obviously! -- but only gets harder to answer the more you think about it. 

Frankly, Chara has reached practically every milestone an NHL defenseman possibly can throughout his lengthy career. The 45-year-old has suited up for well over 1,600 regular-season games, joining only a select few in the league's history to do so. He's captained an Original Six team to the Stanley Cup, won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman, earned a spot on the NHL's first All-Star team three times, and even taken home the meaningless Mark Messier Leadership Award that conveniently omits its namesake's stint as a Vancouver Canuck. 

Realistically, Chara has done it all. 

Which, then begs the question: Will he continue to play on? 

Well, Chara might not be the one to make that decision at this point. 

After spending the past decade successfully evading father time, age has seemingly caught up to the hulking veteran in 2021-22, with Chara beginning to look overmatched facing opponents who only continue to get faster as he slows down.

Offensively, Chara spent the first 63 games of the season searching for a goal. His underlying numbers have plummeted in his second stint on Long Island, too, with the Islanders finding themselves out-scored and out-chanced by significant margins with Chara on the ice at even-strength, with Chara also getting called for penalties at his highest personal rate since 2011, as well. 

That's a troubling trend. And given how Chara's usage has been scaled back to that of a third-pairing defender, a role that brings forth easier minutes against weaker competition, it doesn't look too promising for his future. 

It's not as if Chara's play has declined heavily over the years, either. Sure, his days as the all-world defensive force of his prime are over, but that was expected. The guy turned 40 in 2017, for Pete's sake. Everybody's human. Truly, though, Chara has managed to stave off the pitfalls of age for years after they otherwise should have otherwise engulfed him. And that should be commended. 

Case in point; as a 44-year-old in Washington last season, Chara still helped the Capitals generate 52 percent of the expected goals and 51.63 percent of the scoring chances at even-strength, tilting the ice in his team's favor with key depth minutes en route to a playoff appearance. 

But you can only fight age for so long. At this point, Chara is a replacement-level player on the fringe of a thin team's roster. According to Dom Luszczyszyn's model, he's a negative-value player this season in terms of wins. And with his 50th birthday now closer on the horizon than his 40th was, it might simply be time for Chara to ride off into the sunset. 

But what a ride it was. 

Chara was one of the true anomalies in sports at the height of his powers. There may never be another hockey player quite like him again -- someone whose sheer size and hockey IQ allowed him to unabashedly thrive in an era that was otherwise dominated by speed and skill. Chara could effectively play any role he was thrust into: a top-pair defender, efficient penalty killer, power-play quarterback, and, when the moment called for it, immovable net-front screen. 

The funniest part was that he was beloved league-wide while doing so. 

He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And, barring a public tangent about how Good Will Hunting is overrated, Chara will almost certainly get his jersey raised to the rafters by the Bruins at the earliest possible moment. He's one of the greatest defenders of his generation, deserving of consideration for a spot on any All-2010s team.

That legacy won't be tarnished by another subpar year. But leaving on one's own terms is a luxury few get in professional sports. This might be Chara's last shot at it. 

After the Islanders' loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night, Chara will officially watch his team miss the playoffs for just the fourth time since the 2005-06 lockout. An extended offseason might be good for him, with Chara having missed time this season due to nagging injury and the Islander's COVID-19 outbreak. The Islanders' season-opening 13-game road trip likely couldn't have been easy on the elder statesman's frame, either. Perhaps there are factors other than age at play in his decline. It's not as if a Lou Lamoriello-led team will ever reveal them, though. 

But if this truly is Chara's last ride, and these final six games of the season serve as his last in the NHL, it will mark the end of a dominant, decades-spanning career that may never be replicated again. 

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