With the Boston Bruins the justifiable favorite to return to the Stanley Cup finals from the Eastern Conference — which would be their third trip in four years — it is time to discuss their defensive anchor’s legacy.
Zdeno Chara is Mr. Everything and Mr. Fix It for Boston. With his longtime defensive partner, Dennis Seidenberg, out for the season with a torn ACL and MCL, Chara is once again being called on to play heavy minutes for Boston. The soon-to-be 37-year-old is logging over 25 minutes a game. He has 12 goals and 10 assists already, and with some more puck luck and power play goals, he has a chance to hit a career high with 20 goals.
The Bruins’ captain’s increasing proficiency in the offensive end is no accident. Chara’s work ethic is legendary, and the solution to Boston’s power play perennially stinking was to put him in front of the net, a move that came in the summer of 2013. From this vantage point, he can screen the goalie – which led to Patrice Bergeron’s game-evening goal against the Maple Leafs in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals — or drop to the goal line and play the role of distributor.
The change in positioning has worked. Boston’s power play with Chara’s increased role has flourished. Chara is second among defenseman in goals this season, and the Bruins’ power play is in the top ten. Watch this video to see the full range of Chara’s power play acumen; at 30 seconds, he uses his soft hands to fake out Jimmy Howard.
On the defensive side of the puck, Chara is still the shutdown defender fans marvel at and opponents hate. He is dominant on the penalty kill, and while Boston is just outside the top ten on the penalty kill this season, the Bruins have boasted a top ten unit the previous three campaigns. Chara uses his reach to disrupt puck possession and playmaking, and his precise timing to eliminate enemy skaters from the fore.
His first pass out of the defensive zone is among the elite, something he is not given enough credit for. Chara still has that reputed mean streak, the same disgusted attitude towards opposing forwards that Anton Chigurh has with the modern man. And his range: about 98 percent of Antarctica is covered by ice, which makes it the only mass that covers more ice than Chara.
Looking through the Hall of Fame prism, his numbers are starting to look very worthy. By recently reaching 500 points, he is only 18 away from Tim Horton, and 40 away from Doug Harvey. With a few more strong seasons, it is fathomable that he could reach 600 career points.
Intelligent Hockey does not put a lot of stock in Plus/Minus, but the Hall of Fame Selection Committee does, and since being traded from the New York Islanders to the Ottawa Senators in the summer of 2001, Chara is second in Plus/Minus in the NHL only to Nicklas Lidstrom over that decade-plus span from 2002 to present day. And this is not just among defensemen, but all skaters. Given how good the Bruins are, it seems very likely Chara will take the lead soon – he is only ten behind Lidstrom presently.
Other important accolades include winning the Norris Trophy in 2009, being just the second European-born player to captain a Stanley Cup-winning team, and also being named a six-time All-Star. Chara has been dominant on the biggest stage as well, being a catalyst for the Bruins’ puck movement on offense, and a blockade for puck movement defensively. His intense gravitational field galvanized the Bruins to win the Cup in 2011 and his Capo-di-tutti-capi performance against the Penguins last playoff saw Pittsburgh score only two goals (!) the entire series.
Chara’s dominance is occurring in modern times, which allows it to be measured in a more esoteric way than was true in previous generations. Because of websites like Behindthenet.ca, we can see how his seven charted seasons have fared. Looking at the time frame from when Behindthenet.ca started its research in the 2008 season through the current 2013-14 season to date, Chara’s On-Ice Corsi is an average of 10.8. (There have been more games played in this regular season than last year so it can be included.) To give this stat some context, it means Chara is tilting the ice better on average than Erik Karlsson or Dan Boyle are this season. Those are two of the NHL’s premier puck-moving defensemen. Additionally, his combined Relative Corsi is 8.8, which is the same Relative Corsi of the two Norris Trophy favorites this season: Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty.
Chara has been that good at driving play over the last seven seasons, all while playing against top-flight competition. In fact, last season Hockey Prospectus advocated Chara as their pick for the Norris, citing brutal zone starts, prowess on the penalty kill, and elite competition as their gauge of his supremacy as best defenseman.
What is so amazing about Chara is that there is something predatory about his command of the ice. He is bigger and stronger than his contemporaries, so he is the genetically superior species – that’s rudimentary Darwinism. But like Sidney Crosby and LeBron James, Chara is devoted to preparation, trying to improve all the important subtleties to his all-around game.
Chara should be lauded for his consistency; he always seems to be in the rhythm of his game, although that game has evolved, as he has gotten older. The Chara from a decade ago would not have been able to lead a one-man break out from his own goal line to the opponent’s blue line by himself. Nor would he possess the stickhandling élan that allows him to curl-and-drag the puck around a pesky opponent. But he has improved his skating and his stickhandling, all while trying to fine-tune his defensive game.
Everything Chara does in the Bruins’ own zone is linear. He retrieves the puck, makes his reads, then delivers the first pass or skates the puck until the passing lanes open up. That is decision-making and hockey awareness in bunches.
Furthermore, his footwork is nonpareil, allowing him to mix shorter, more explosive steps with long, space-eating strides. Good luck trying to beat him to the outside on a counterattack, because Chara nearly always seals the edge with ease – even when the Bruins’ forwards are a step behind and he is faced with a one-on-one battle. His foot speed translates to strong lateral mobility, not just an admirable vertical game – the opposing forward is nearly always defeated.
Chara is an excellent defenseman who has been one of the game-breaking blue liners of the last decade. When assessing a player’s candidacy, it is important to ask whether he was the best at his position during a certain point of time. Whether that was last season, or 2009, or 2011 – or several other years — the answer is indisputably “yes.”