For more than 14 years, Boston, both the city and its hockey team, provided the ideal fit for Zdeno Chara. He loved his job with the Bruins, one that paid him handsomely, and he rejoiced in playing and living in a city that embraced him as if he were some Townie rather than a transplant from Trencin, Czechoslovakia.
All of that ended abruptly on Wednesday afternoon when Chara, 43, quietly bid adieu to Causeway Street for a one-year deal with the Washington Capitals that could pay him upward of a maximum $2 million for the upcoming abbreviated NHL season.
In a farewell posting on Instagram, Chara wrote that the Bruins informed him of “their plan to move forward with their many younger and talented players” and that he respected the club’s decision.
Not said, and left hanging until both sides comment publicly on Thursday, is whether the Bruins offered Chara the opportunity to remain here, with the captain’s “C” stitched on his jersey, for similar money, albeit with a reduced role in terms of playing situations and overall ice time.
General manager Don Sweeney will hold a Zoom news conference at 10:30 a.m. Thursday. The club thanked Chara on Twitter Wednesday.
There have been few that have represented the Spoked-B with as much class, honor, and respect as Zdeno Chara. His place in Bruins history is cemented forever.— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) December 31, 2020
Thank you, Zee, for all you have done for our organization and our city.#ThankYouZee | #NHLBruins pic.twitter.com/8PKclWHrLj
If the Bruins offered and Chara declined, then it all ended here by his own hand. All good. His choice. Yet another case of an aging veteran looking for a more significant role elsewhere in whatever hours remain in the lingering twilight of his career.
If not, and the Bruins denied him a spot on the roster for that relative pittance in payroll, his ending here will be seen as a forced, inglorious, even callous ending to what truly was a magnificent run, one in which Big Z helped transfuse new life into the franchise and also reserved himself a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The only one talking Wednesday was Matt Keator, Chara’s agent dating to before the 6-foot-9-inch back liner signed here in July 2006 for five years and $37.5 million — what remains the richest UFA signing in team history.
According to Keator, Sweeney “handled things very well, was clear and communicative from the start, and Z very much appreciated it.”
In the end, with his client opting to sign with the 2018 Cup champs, Keator said Chara had to balance what role he could have had here, what other opportunities were presented elsewhere, and also whether it was time to call it a career after 1,553 regular-season games, a Norris Trophy, and the 2011 Stanley Cup championship that stands as his crowning career achievement.
“It was gut-wrenching for him, that’s the best way to describe it,” said Keator. “He was balancing family, legacy, a city he loves … but it came down to the fact that he still has a competitive fire that burns in him. He still has the drive to play … the drive to win.”
Asked specifically what the Bruins offered Chara, Keator respectfully declined comment, noting it was a question for Sweeney to answer.
“But again, no complaints with the way any of this was handled,” said Keator. “Crystal clear from the start.”
Meanwhile, the situation on the Boston blue line is, at best, murky. Sweeney acknowledged to the Globe a month ago that, for now, there are more questions than answers back there, all the more so now with both Torey Krug and Big Z leaving town within some 11 weeks of one another.
Krug, like Chara an unrestricted free agent, signed for seven years/$44.5 million in St. Louis Oct. 9, thus leaving the Bruins without their top offensive threat from the back line. Now they are minus Chara, who, even at his advanced age, remained their top shutdown option, and also offered right-side partner Charlie McAvoy an immense comfort factor to take risks, make mistakes, grow his game.
McAvoy, now officially the franchise defenseman, will make up for some of Krug’s lost points (an average of 53 over the last four seasons). No doubt he’ll move to the No. 1 power-play unit, possibly paired with fellow ex-Boston University Terrier Matt Grzelcyk.
The far harder fix to find will be at Chara’s vacated spot on the No. 1 D unit, where he averaged 21:01 in ice time (second only to McAvoy’s 23:10) last season. Beginning with the opening of training camp Sunday, coach Bruce Cassidy will have no dearth of candidates to audition at left D, including a pair of unknown commodities in first-round picks Urho Vaakanainen (2017) and Jakub Zboril (2015). Cassidy also can offer looks to Jeremy Lauzon and John Moore.
No one will replace Chara, certainly not in the immediate and most likely not in the future. The Bruins have seen this before in the departures of captain Ray Bourque in 2000 (traded to Colorado) and franchise icon Bobby Orr (free agent to Chicago) at age 28 in the summer of 1976.
No franchise in NHL history, perhaps in all of sport, can match having to bid farewell to a comparable threesome at one position. They combined for 3,172 regular-season games here and collected 14 Norris Trophies as the NHL’s top defenseman. Orr (twice) and Chara (once) had their names engraved on the Cup as Bruins. Bourque was chiseled in with the Avalanche in 2001.
The trio’s combined scoring line here: 807 goals-2,068 assists—2,875 points.
Chara was different, in many ways, starting with the fact that he began his career elsewhere, logging 530 games with the Islanders and Senators before signing on here in ’06 and immediately being designated captain.
No Bruin, and no one in league history, could match Chara’s size and strength and athleticism, the mere force/threat of his being providing a safeguard against even the thought of any shenanigans.
“He’s a killing machine,” Keator said soon after Chara’s arrival here.
In truth, he rarely fought, in part because the role of fighting diminished significantly league-wide during his time here, and also because few in the league dared to engage him. In a couple of weeks, we’ll get our first look at the Bruins’ bench minus the Big Z 33 fire extinguisher parked there to quell all flare-ups.
The Bruins and Chara will meet next on Saturday, Jan. 30 in Washington, but this time with Chara dressed as a towering, intimidating presence in the Capitals’ lineup. He’ll return to the Garden for the first time March 3, with a chance by then that COVID-19 will have abated and at least some fans will be allowed back in the stands.
The day is sure to come when Chara’s 33 will be hoisted to the Garden rafters, along with other glorious Boston defensemen Eddie Shore, Lionel Hitchman, Bourque, and incomparable No. 4. The hallowed spot in the rafters is a certainty, the same too for the gaping hole in the lineup.