Politely, professionally, respectfully — yet no doubt with a burning conviction to prove the Bruins sold him short — Zdeno Chara said goodbye to Boston because the role management envisioned for him here was that of a spare part.
Unlike an offer too good to refuse, Boston’s bid to keep the surefire Hall of Famer, the club’s captain since arriving here as a free agent in 2006, was too light to accept.
“As conversations progressed,” Chara said during a Zoom press conference on Thursday, less than 24 hours after he agreed to a one-year deal with the Capitals, “it was very clear to me that I would not be in the starting lineup for the season, or starting some games, or playing some back-to-back games. I would be more of a reserve type of player.”
It was not the way the proud Chara, 43, preferred his career to end. He still believes he can be a vital contributor, capable of logging somewhere around the 21 minutes per game he averaged with the Bruins last season, and maybe help lift the Capitals to their second Stanley Cup title in four seasons.
“For me, I felt it would be a better fit for me if I find a better role with another team,” added Chara, who repeatedly noted his respect for the Bruins’ decision, “and kind of step aside and let the Boston Bruins go in the direction they chose to do.”
So there we have it. The Bruins viewed Big Z as an extra, a depth defenseman, a dangling participle, while he still thinks he can provide valuable, heavy minutes for a legit Cup contender.
Who’s right? Check this space when the playoffs begin in mid-May, if not sooner.
The bet here is that the Bruins have made a costly miscalculation, first underestimating Big Z’s current value, hand in hand with overestimating their ability to fill in the blanks left behind in his departure. At this hour, there remains not a single obvious candidate to fill Chara’s spot adequately at left defense on the No. 1 shutdown pairing aside Charlie McAvoy for the Jan. 14 season opener.
Perhaps it’s Jakub Zboril. Or maybe Jeremy Lauzon. Or Urho Vaakanainen. Combined NHL games for that trio: 44. With the Capitals, Chara’s first game will be career No. 1,554. It’s a spot where experience matters.
“Nothing is guaranteed in Washington,” said Chara, when asked what playing role awaited him there.
But what is guaranteed is that Peter Laviolette, the newly hired Capitals coach, will go into the season with Chara inked in as a regular for five-on-five duty and on the penalty kill. Unless he proves unworthy, Chara again will punch in for somewhere around 20 minutes of ice time per night and offer Laviolette a huge comfort blanket for the back end going into each game.
Money was not the issue. The Bruins could have kept Chara on the payroll for a relative pittance, a cheap insurance policy in a shortened season that will play out across no more than 177 days, from the league’s puck drop on Jan. 13 up to a possible Game 7 of the Cup Final on July 9.
As a group, defensemen forever have been the most stressed come playoff time, and often the hardest to replace. Think back to McAvoy making his debut for the Bruins during the playoffs in 2017, when new coach Bruce Cassidy was forced to patch up his injured D corps with guys like Bobby Pins and Elmer Glue. The postseason came to an abrupt end in Game 6 vs. the Senators.
According to agent Matt Keator, upward of 20 NHL teams called to inquire about Chara’s services. Ultimately, a handful of those clubs made offers, he said, including two that offered deals of more than a year.
“All of it considered, Washington made the most sense,” said Keator. “They’re in a win-now mode.”
Potential suitors, noted Keator, valued that Chara ranked fifth in the league for shorthanded time on ice, and fifth among all NHL defensemen with a plus-26 rating. All with his 21:01 average time on ice.
Chara, the NHL’s oldest player, will be 44 in March. He has his shortcomings, most of all his lack of speed and agility. He was never that nimble, and therefore is not about to become a late-in-life puck-carrying, give-and-go defenseman.
In NHL 2021, he is a narrow fit, now working within ever-tightening margins, in a game gone goofy for speed. But he can deliver on the penalty kill, partner on the No. 1 shutdown unit, and provide a critical guiding hand for defensemen in training. To wit: Z’s work the last three seasons grooming rawboned partners Brandon Carlo and McAvoy. Both entered as freshmen and quickly advanced to PhD course level playing time. Well, the professor just left the classroom.
“We’re going to do it by committee and allow some of these guys a little bit of trial and error and potentially fail as a result of it,” said GM Don Sweeney, when asked how Chara’s minutes will be filled. “But also succeed as a result of it and not look over their shoulder in any way, shape or form because they have to gain that experience.
“You’re not going to move forward in your career if you’re not put in those situations. Sometimes you fall flat and other times you rise up.”
Had he stayed, Chara’s ice time indeed might have cut into valuable development minutes for some of the kids. But that could have been managed effectively by Cassidy. The compressed schedule in itself will demand that more players be used, which is why larger rosters were factored into the league’s return-to-play negotiations with the Players Association.
There was room here to make it work, to accommodate Chara with viable, valuable minutes, while at the same time find out what some newbies can bring. All with Chara there to act as a player/assistant coach.
But that wasn’t how Sweeney & Co. saw things, and the mini-Z scenario presented to Chara not only fell short of what he hoped for, but didn’t measure up to what he expects and demands of himself. His inner drive and sense of self-worth told him it was time to go.
“I just felt what was presented to me, and what conditions were attached to it,” mused Chara, “I just felt I had more to offer. I respect their decisions and I wish them the best, but I just felt I can still play regularly, play the games. I have no issues with them going in a different direction. I just felt for me, at this point in my career, it’s better if I continue to play.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.