If the Boston Bruins’ autopsy on their 2013-14 season doesn’t point to the absence of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg as one of the chief causes of death, they’re autopsying wrong. Not having him in the lineup since he tore the ACL and MCL in his knee Dec. 27 – and not replacing him with a capable veteran at or before the trade deadline – led to the grinding-down of Zdeno Chara’s effectiveness and that led to a number of crucial errors in Game 7 against the Montreal Canadiens.
Due respect to star goalie Tuukka Rask, but Chara is still the straw that stirs the Bruins’ drink – and without his defensive partner Seidenberg, the Norris Trophy finalist clearly sagged as the second round series against Montreal evolved. Despite the team managing his minutes (particularly important in an Olympic year), Chara went from an average of 24:39 in 77 regular-season games to just 21:35 in Game 6 against the Habs and 23:40 in Game 7.
Those would be impressive numbers for the average NHL blueliner, but they’re not what the Seidenberg-less Bruins needed from Chara. And although 20-year-old Dougie Hamilton stepped in as Chara’s playoff partner and availed himself well, the domino effect of Seidenberg's absence on Boston’s defense corps was clear and not positive: sophomore Matt Bartkowksi and Johnny Boychuk were hardly the most imposing second pairing and rookie Torey Krug and Kevan Miller were solid in the offensive zone, but not in their own end. Sure, the absence of Adam McQuaid was another factor, but don’t fool yourself – Seidenberg’s presence would’ve meant Boston’s younger blueliners saw their minutes cut drastically.
Seidenberg averaged 25:59 of playoff ice time in 2013, 26:42 in the 2012 post-season and 27:37 in the Bruins’ Stanley Cup-winning 2011 post-season. And with Seidenberg on the sidelines this year, more weight was placed on Chara’s shoulders. For the first time in a very long time, the behemoth couldn’t be Mr. Everything for Boston.
You can’t blame the 37-year-old for that. He was the main target of the opposition and absorbed all kinds of physical abuse from the Canadiens. It’s not his fault he can’t evade Father Time forever.
Now, it isn’t as if Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli had the option to pick up a defenseman at the trade deadline who could be as quietly effective as Seidenberg has been for the franchise. They took a chance on journeyman Andrej Meszaros, but the 28-year-old was a slow-footed washout and only appeared in four playoff games. It would’ve cost them a lot more in a trade to acquire someone better than Meszaros, but it would have been worth it, because if you look at the three teams that have qualified for the conference final, they all have above-average, if not elite depth on the blueline.
The Blackhawks’ defense corps features Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya and Nick Leddy. The Canadiens includes P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, Alexei Emelin and (solid trade pickup) Mike Weaver. The Rangers have Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal.
You can make the case Chara is better than any of those d-men, but the drop-off between him and the rest of the Bruins’ blueliners is more severe than any you see in Chicago, Montreal or Manhattan. The situation will be alleviated when Seidenberg returns next season, but Chara will be another year older and most likely less able to impact a series as he has in previous years.
Having a superstar defender such as Chara can separate you from the grand majority of NHL teams, but at playoff time, even an icon like him needs help. The Bruins didn’t give him enough of it, and that’s why they’re packing up their personal belongings today.