The breakthrough usually happens midway through the summer. Perhaps even in mid-sprint, Zdeno Chara feels the point when his once-battered body snaps back into a familiar groove.
“You’re noticing that you’re getting stronger,” he said. “You’re noticing that you’re getting faster. That’s when it’s fun. I like that.”
The previous segment hardly qualifies as fun.
“That’s the part where it hurts,” Chara said with a smile. “But that’s the way you have to go through it. That part hurts. It’s probably not as much fun. But then after that, it’s fun.”
There is nothing entertaining for forwards who dare to enter Chara’s workspace. Chara goes into 2013-14 as the NHL’s reigning shutdown defenseman. His defense, combined with Tuukka Rask’s netminding and Patrice Bergeron’s all-around excellence, gives the Bruins their identity for yet another season.
Chara took a week off in Florida to recover from the throbbing of the loss to Chicago in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final and the pain of an injured hip flexor. But upon his return to Slovakia, Chara launched his offseason running program. He cannot afford anything less. Chara may be one of the fittest and strongest men in the NHL but his conditioning does not come naturally.
For some players, hockey is easy. Dougie Hamilton, for example, skates and rushes and turns with the smoothness of foam atop cappuccino.
Not so with Chara. When Chara was a 20-year-old like Hamilton, he was more disjointed than puzzle pieces tumbling off a table. It has taken years of work for the self-made strongman to shape himself into the league’s most smothering defenseman. Things have not changed as Chara enters his 15th full NHL season.
Chara’s approach presents a challenge to his employer. The 36-year-old requires reps — game time, practices, off-ice workouts — to maintain the touch, timing, and brawn that make him the baddest man in the darkest alley.
Chara went through stretches last year when his game was a tick off. The Bruins believe the scarcity of practice, because of the lockout-shortened schedule, affected Chara’s rhythm.
But there is an organizational emphasis on easing Chara’s responsibilities. The Bruins think Chara and the team will be better off this way.
Last year, one of Chara’s most impressive feats took place in the postseason against Toronto. In Game 6, Chara logged 28 minutes, 26 seconds of ice time. The next night, Dennis Seidenberg, Chara’s partner, suffered a hamstring injury during his first shift. Without his right-hand man, Chara clocked in at 35:46 and had one assist in the Bruins’ 5-4 come-from-behind win.
The end of Chara’s season was less graceful. He was on the ice for 10 of Chicago’s final 12 goals in the Final.
Coach Claude Julien repeatedly shifted blame away from Chara. Video confirmed Chara was not altogether to blame. And if the Bruins didn’t have to lean on Chara so heavily, the captain might have had enough juice left in his battery to help prevent some of those goals.
Last year, Chara averaged 24:56 of ice time per game. Aside from 2010-11, Chara’s workload has dipped every year since his Boston arrival in 2006-07, when he logged an average of 27:57.
That trend will continue. By reducing Chara’s responsibilities, Julien will show more trust in Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid, two of his other defense-first defensemen. That should pay off in the long run.
But it will also allow Chara to train his sights on one specific task: preventing opponents from scoring.
“If he plays a little less, he’s going to give us more,” Julien said. “That’s the small adjustment. That doesn’t mean he’s going from 24 minutes to 19. There’s certainly going to be games where you’re going to see him get as much ice time. But we’re certainly going to keep an eye on that.”
The Bruins won’t shorten Chara’s important shifts. When they start the regular season against Tampa Bay Oct. 3, Chara will roll over the boards every time Steven Stamkos touches the ice.
But if the Bruins go on the power play, Chara should be on the bench when the first unit goes out. Maybe even the second one.
Chara owns one of the NHL’s hardest shots. It requires toughness, insanity, or a mix of both to step in front of a Chara heater (hello, Ryan Callahan). Part of the danger is that nobody, including Chara, knows where the puck will go — in the net, against the glass, or wedged in the side of a teammate’s helmet.
Sounds simple to grip and rip, doesn’t it? Not for Chara. Like the rest of his game, it demands practice, which is hazardous for teammates. Last year, the coaching staff hesitated before tapping Bergeron for net-front PP duty. They were afraid Chara would peg a puck off Bergeron’s head.
Of Chara’s 19 points last year, 4 came on the power play (three goals, one assist). Chara averaged 2:27 of power-play time per game. But the way the team’s PP runs cold at times, there were games when Chara spent most of his one-up time retreating to retrieve a flung-out puck.
The Bruins have other options up top. Torey Krug and Hamilton can work the point. Boychuk (six playoff goals) loves to hammer the puck. Seidenberg might be the best on the team at putting pucks on goal from the point.
Chara’s most effective PP position isn’t even up top. On Bergeron’s six-on-five goal against Toronto in Game 7, James Reimer didn’t get a good look at the shot. Chara, the net-front man, had blocked out the sun, to say nothing of the puck. No goalie can see around Chara. No defenseman can move him. Chara’s hands are soft enough to put in tips and rebounds.
Net-front duty is tougher than the point. It’s hard to root out space in the danger area, even for a hulk like Chara. But nothing in his career has come easily.