WASHINGTON — The Bruins need help in a few places, true of most of their playoff-bound brethren, and left-side defense is among their glaring soft spots.
Which is to say, gee, a guy like Zdeno Chara would be a good fit over there right about now, ya know?
Big Z’s not coming back, folks, so erase that from your Monday trade deadline wish list. Right now, as far as the first-place Capitals are concerned, he’s the most valuable Washington monument in town.
The Trencin Tower of Power will be on the job against the Bruins Thursday night, 99 days since abruptly bidding Boston adieu as a free agent, and paired most of the night with Nick Jensen as the Capitals’ top penalty-killing tandem.
Chara, who turned 44 last month, has logged an average 18:31 time on ice this season as one of only three defensemen to play in all of the Capitals’ 39 games. He has piled up 100:27 in shorthanded time, tops on the club, a category he typically led all of his 14 seasons as the Bruins’ captain. At his peak, Chara almost alone locked down the PK in Boston’s end.
In short, he’s the same ol’ Big Z today, even though a year older, and even though the Bruins’ front office had him pegged as a No. 7 or 8 spot starter in their rotation had he reupped with the Black and Gold in December.
We figured then, and we know now, they’d be aching for Chara’s presence as the playoffs approached. It wasn’t necessarily a fatal miscalculation to let him walk away, but it sure put them in an unnecessary spot, and not because of money.
Remember, it came down to role, profile, and above all, need, general manager Don Sweeney, et al, convinced that newbies Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril needed Chara’s ice time to find footing in their NHL careers. All of that, they felt, was a more pressing need than finding Chara bona fide minutes and keeping him happy in a meaningful insurance/coaching role in what portended to be — and has since proven — a demanding, compressed 56-game season.
To their credit, Lauzon and Zboril have been OK, about on par with where Chara stood upon landing on the Islanders’ blue line as a 20-year-old, back when size alone was a work permit in the NHL. Their roles are different from one another, and they each have tons to learn, but there is promise there. And yes, they’ve benefited from feeding off some of the minutes that would have been Chara’s share of the pie.
Allowing Z to walk, though, was, shall we say, a curious fit alongside the protracted narrative of making a legit title run with Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Brad Marchand all still aboard from the 2011 Stanley Cup title. With that the main objective, the best chance of making it happen would have had Chara still in Black and Gold, getting sufficient playing minutes, and working the kids in as needed. There was room for him to be appeased, and room for the kids to grow.
Because, we know this, there is always need back there.
Think back to the 2017 playoffs, the first with Sweeney as GM. Round 1 vs. the Senators. Because of the ever-present blend of injury and subpar performance, the Bruins all but had to reach down to the Medford Saturday Night Senior League to fill out their six-pack. End result: Senators in six. Not even a newly arrived Charlie McAvoy, hustled through AHL Providence, could save them.
The Senators, by the way, lost Game 7 of the Cup semis that spring and haven’t had a sniff of the postseason since.
The Bruins have dressed 12 defensemen to date — second only to Colorado’s 13 — and that’s including the burly Jarred Tinordi, clipped off the waiver wire only six weeks into the season as it became increasingly evident the Bruins were having trouble filling the Chara void.
Injuries to Kevan Miller (RD), Brandon Carlo (RD), John Moore (LD), Matt Grzelcyk (LD), and Lauzon (LD) have had coach Bruce Cassidy scrambling for the last 8-10 weeks to come up with a suitable six each night.
The most dynamic pairing has been Grzelcyk with McAvoy, a vastly different look than the old reliable Chara-McAvoy pairing. However, Grzelcyk, about 1 foot shorter and 75 pounds lighter than Big Z, doesn’t make it the shutdown pairing that was Chara-McAvoy.
Truth is, as presently constituted, the Bruins do not have a No. 1 shutdown unit to oppose top lines. Lauzon, who suffered a hand fracture Feb. 21, showed signs of grasping the role in McAvoy’s sidecar prior to his injury. His work since his recent return has been spotty, leaving Cassidy inclined to go with the Grzelcyk-McAvoy pairing. That is not a sustainable look come playoff time, when physical play ratchets higher and opposing right wingers (hello, Tom Wilson, 6-4/220) will be advance booking rooms for Grzelcyk at the Palookaville Marriott.
Tinordi, 6-6, 205 pounds, and willing, is another candidate for that No. 1 role with McAvoy come playoff time. But here we are in April 2021, musing over whether a waiver pickup, age 29 with 98 NHL games, could be the guy to fix the hole created by Chara, just as the ex-Bruins captain prepares to pull on that Capitals uniform for his 1,593rd NHL game.
It didn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t have been this way.