There likely won’t be a next Zdeno Chara in the NHL, because times are different, the game far faster than when Big Z first entered the league more than 20 years ago. Speed isn’t everything in today’s game, but a big guy like Chara (admittedly, 6-foot-9-inch redwoods are few) would have to prove from the very first puck drop in training camp that he had the requisite leg RPM for the position.
“You get a 6-foot-8 guy coming in here, and it looks like he’s not fluid, right away you’d say, ‘No, not going to be able to skate well enough,’ ” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “So that’d be tough for a guy in this day and age. They get ruled out quickly . . . people figure, ‘Well, how much can his skating progress at his age?’ ”
Chara, who celebrated his 42nd birthday on Monday, is a marvel in many ways, his greatest talent perhaps his ability to tailor his skill set to an ever-changing league template over the last 20-plus years.
Initially a towering, lumbering curiosity upon entering the league in 1997-98, he was given a lengthy shot by the Islanders not because of his speed and mobility, but because of his size and strength and near-maniacal work ethic.
It was a league then in which defensemen were encouraged to work the front of their nets like sadistic nightclub bouncers. Cross-checks and butt ends were the standard order of business at the top of the goalie’s crease. Defensemen were only sent to the penalty box, complaining all the way, of course, if a brutalized forward was sent to the hospital.
Onetime Bruins coach Butch Goring, one of Chara’s early coaches on the Island, often paired Big Z with 6-5 Eric Cairns. The idea wasn’t skating and puck movement. Goring wanted a granite-block fortress with two massive-armed knights parked in front of the net.
“I played Chara against the best teams’ forwards, and he didn’t have any problems at all,” recalled Goring. “Imagine that pairing? One 6-9 and the other 6-5?! We were playing the Rangers one night, and they had Theo Fleury on their best line. And of course, I had Chara and Cairns out there. I’d tell them, ‘Anyone comes to the net, you lay it on ’em.’ And Fleury was so [ticked] at me. And I know Fleury, because he’s from Manitoba [same as Goring]. He came racing by the bench one day and he said every word . . . in . . . the . . . book. He thought I was after him. I wasn’t after him. I was playing the game the proper way and thinking how we were going to win.”
Chara’s game truly didn’t begin to evolve until he was dealt to Ottawa in June 2001. To that point, after 3½ seasons on the Island, he had six goals and 29 points, not to mention, ahem, 347 penalty minutes, in 231 games. Not very likely that those numbers would carry a guy into a fifth season today. The penalty minutes alone might be enough for a ticket back to Trencin.
To underscore his case for how a guy like Chara would struggle to gain a foothold today, Cassidy noted how the game in the late ’90s rarely offered work to undersized defensemen. Rule of the day: be big or be gone. Greg Hawgood (Hawgie Hockey!) was the rarity. And let’s not forget, Hawgood played for seven other NHL teams after Boston, with coaches forever trying to transition the little guy (5-10) to forward.
“A 5-foot-10 guy years ago would really have to upset the applecart to get a chance, said Cassidy. “The Torey Krugs of the world had a tough time. [Matt] Grzelcyk would never get a look back then. It’s not what the game wanted or how GMs filled out [their rosters].”
It has been Chara’s ability to adapt, stressed Bob Beers, veteran analyst on the Bruins radio broadcasts, that has been so impressive. Chara not only has been able to improvise and keep pace with a game that is played at an increasingly blurring speed, but he has made all necessary changes well beyond the years that most players call it quits.
“You have to admire the way that he’s altered his game, to continue to be effective,” said Beers, the former Bruins backliner. “He’s not going to win a footrace, that’ll be tough for him. So the angles become that much more important.
“You know, how he positions his stick, how he positions his body. You can’t put a stick on a guy anymore. It’s stick to stick instead of stick on the body. He’s so smart out there. When you don’t have the speed, the angles become that much more important. Body position and stick position is what I often refer to when talking about him. He is so good at defending — the stick is always a threat to be in the way.”
For his part, Chara thinks the 20-year-old version of himself reporting to an NHL camp today still would get a viable shot. He still thinks coaches value today the things he put on the table then.
“Ummmm . . . tough to say,” he said. “Different times. I think they still value the size, toughness, strength. I mean, it is still valuable. I don’t think it is just something that you can completely ignore and think now you are just going to look for players that are just highly skilled and skate and not being tough or handle different situations. I think you are always looking for those type of values. It’s just the game, the systems, the rules, everything was different back then.”
As for smaller defensemen not often getting a chance in days gone by, Chara summoned the names Paul Coffey and Glen Wesley as two examples of “smaller defensemen” who excelled. Of course, Coffey was 6 feet and Wesley 6-1, and both played at 200 pounds. Which goes to show, the view of all things is a little smaller when seen through Big Z’s eyes.
Bruins’ focus on Leafs — again
Monday night’s stop in Tampa will offer the Bruins a look at what they already know: The Lightning will enter the postseason as the strongest Stanley Cup favorite in years, with no discernible weaknesses. It’s a bolder, more offensively prolific edition than the squad that ran the table on the Bruins in four straight after losing Game 1 of the Eastern semis last spring.
The Bruins’ sharper focus at the moment is the Maple Leafs, who have been their inevitable first-round matchup since before even the Feb. 25 trade deadline. Yet another drawback of the current postseason system is that two solid clubs, parked 2-3 in their division, have their playoff dance partners nearly preordained, while the division winners await the often down-to-the-wire finish of the 7-8 wild-card berths. Not much suspense there for fans who feed off the mysteries of matchups.
Unless the math flips dramatically, the Bruins will lock up the home-ice advantage over Toronto this coming week — a repeat of last year’s opening round. Muddling around at .500 the last couple of weeks (5-4-1 in their last 10 as of Friday morning), the Leafs again look and sound vulnerable.
This is coach Mike Babcock’s fourth year behind the Leafs’ bench. They missed the playoffs his first year, followed by a pair of first-round knockouts in years 2 and 3. He has yet to live up to the “rainmaker” label that had the Leafs shower him with an eight-year deal worth $50 million.
And Monday, this was Babcock following the Blue and White’s morning workout:
“You’re supposed to build the best program you can, so you have as much depth so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you keep going. There’s other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping going. That just tells us what state we’re at, and you’ve just got to keep adding better players.”
Quite a statement. If it were, say, April 22, and the Leafs again had been sent skittering down playoff death row. Babcock’s remarks would have been the normal speak of Breakup Day.
But some three weeks ahead of the playoffs, with his team sputtering, it sounded like so much kicking the excuse can down the road. It also sounded like he was talking about the Bruins, who have had their ample share of injuries (including seven players sidelined by concussion) and just kept on trucking.
It’s hardly a fait accompli that the Bruins will get by the Leafs. It took seven games last spring and it easily could go seven again this year. With his team scuffling, shouldn’t Babcock’s emphasis be on powering through the challenge rather than identifying the alleged root cause?
Postseason will be a first for Carlo
Third-year Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo has 224 games logged in the NHL, not one of them in the playoffs. He is counting on that changing quite soon, although it’s a hope he is somewhat reluctant to express for fear of jinxing it.
“I just don’t even talk about it or try and think about it,” he said. “For me, it’s nerve-racking, I guess.”
For good reason. In his rookie season, Carlo sat out the 2017 playoffs because of a concussion. Last year, a broken ankle had him again on the sidelines, this time wheeling around the dressing room and press box on a tricycle-like contraption propping his leg to aid in the healing process after surgery to repair a cracked fibula.
Carlo, at 215, is 10 pounds heavier than in his rookie season. The combination of physical heft and overall playing experience should bring him to his first postseason (fingers crossed) as a more finished product than if he had been in the lineup for that first-round series against Ottawa in ’17.
“For the physical grind, he should be better prepared,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, Carlo just one of the injured among a decimated Boston backline in the 2017 postseason. “He’s two years stronger and you can see that out on the ice every day. So that part should carry over to the playoffs.”
What Carlo won’t have is the experience, the knowledge gained in being dropped into the deep end of an entirely different level of competition.
“He’ll be nervous, I assume,” said Cassidy. “But hopefully that’ll be gone in a hurry, because he does have the 200-something games under his belt, so it’s not like he is brand new to it. He has veteran guys around him. That’s one area that we’ll have to get him through in a hurry.”
Carlo’s game remains centered on defense, a definition that he still believes he can broaden. He has the legs and stick skill to be more involved in the offense, but Cassidy, like Claude Julien in Carlo’s first year, typically slots him in a more conservative role. In his first year, Carlo rode most with Chara in a big shutdown pair. Under Cassidy, he typically has been the stabilizing factor in a No. 2 pairing with the offensively minded Torey Krug.
“I think there’s still room for me to grow,” said Carlo. “I think I’ll continue to say that, on the offensive side of things. But overall I think, right now, it’s not a tryout period. I think that’s more early in the year and preseason. Right now I think I kind of have my defined role as a defensive guy and that’s what I want to bring to the table during the playoffs.”
The first time experiencing the second season, noted Cassidy, will present Carlo with variables he hasn’t witnessed over his three tours of regular-season play.
“The elevation of play,” said Cassidy. “Until you’ve played it, guys tend to be a little more determined finishing their checks. Guys who don’t normally finish their checks a ton during the year, they’ll at least skate through you. There’s just a little more of that, a little less room to operate, and he’ll have to learn that.”
In his third year, Carlo has been more settled with the puck, less prone to get rid of it in circumstances when he’s not under pressure. All part of a backliner’s learning curve. “I kind of just want to continue on a positive note,” he said. “Continue those strides before the playoffs and in the playoffs. Hopefully with my experience of calming down a little bit more, and gaining in experience, will help me in the playoffs when it gets loud and rowdy.”
The Hurricanes are on the verge of making the postseason for the first time since 2009. Prior to getting waxed by Tampa, 6-3, on Thursday, they were on a 12-3-1 run. Not one member of the current roster played for Carolina in the 2009 playoffs. Justin Williams was there in 2008-09, but was flipped to Los Angeles at the March trade deadline for Patrick O’Sullivan and a second-round draft pick used to take former Boston College Eagle Brian Dumoulin (now a two-time Cup winner in Pittsburgh) . . . Butch Goring, let go as the Islanders’ coach late in the 2000-01 season, met with then-owner Charles Wang in an exit interview. “He asked me for an appraisal of his team,” recalled Goring. “And I told him, point blank, ‘I know you are thinking of trading [Zdeno] Chara. Do not do that. It will be the biggest mistake you make in your life. Do not trade this guy.’ ” And with a hearty chuckle, Goring added, “He didn’t listen to me.” Then-GM Mike Milbury wheeled Chara to the Senators in a deal that also sent Bill Muckalt and a first-round pick to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin. Ottawa used the pick, No. 2 ovearll, to claim Jason Spezza in the 2001 draft . . . The Blue Jackets entered weekend play 1 point out of a wild-card berth (No. 8 owned by an obscure French-Canadian franchise). If they miss out, it’s all but a guarantee that goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (31-23-1 as of Friday morning) will have to find work elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent. Just a year ago, Bobrovsky had an eight-year, $72 million offer to remain in Cannon town . . . Cassidy, who grew up in Ottawa as a huge Bobby Orr fan, also was a Denis Potvin devotee. Potvin was also from Ottawa and also played junior for the local “67s”, the same as Cassidy. The only rub came in 1976, when Cassidy was 11 and Orr and Potvin paired on a Team Canada squad for the Canada Cup. Orr, though hindered by bad knees, was named tournament MVP. By Cassidy’s recollection, Potvin was quoted as saying he outplayed Orr in a couple of games. “And I’m like, ‘How can you say that about my guy?’ ” recalled Cassidy. “Obviously, I think it was a sentimental vote as much as any — Orr had missed some time playing and came back for the tournament. What he said always rubbed me the wrong way. But I always loved the way [Potvin] played. He was tough. Those good defensemen back then, he was tough, could hit, fight, and score. My brother was a huge New York Islander fan, so I heard a lot about Potvin from him.” . . . Orr, by the way, celebrated his 71st birthday on Wednesday. Next spring, that tattered picture in your garage, with Orr flying through the air after banging home the Cup winner, will be 50 years old.