There is no chance Zdeno Chara will ever see a statue of himself suspended in mid-air, stick up, celebrating a Stanley Cup-winning goal similar to the one of Bobby Orr that sits near the Boston Bruins’ arena.
But there is every chance that should he help the Bruins deliver an NHL championship at the expense of the St. Louis Blues, 49 years after Orr did exactly the same thing against the same team, Chara can take his place just behind Orr and Raymond Bourque in the Bruins’ pantheon of defence greats.
Chara may be 42 years old now and he may have been exhibiting signs of wear as the playoffs went on in trying to keep up with the speed game the NHL is today but he remains one of the Bruins’ most important players.
“Chara is still a good player,” Blues head coach Craig Berube told reporters the other day. “He's a force out there, a big guy and he's difficult to play against.”
Even though he has one year left on a contract that pays US$2-million annually plus a potential US$1.75-million in bonuses, this could be Chara’s last hurrah in the NHL. While he and defence partner Charlie McAvoy remain the Bruins’ top shutdown pair, Chara’s days as a dependable 40-to-50-point defenceman are long behind him.
The Bruins showed off their depth on defence in these playoffs. McAvoy is a top-four defenceman at the age of 21, third-year man Brandon Carlo, 22, showed he is also top-four capable and at various times John Moore and Connor Clifton filled in well for missing regulars. It would not be a surprise if Chara decided to call it a career if the Bruins win their first Stanley Cup since 2011.
The Cup final is certainly setting up in the best way for Chara to retire as a champion. Thanks to the Bruins’ sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final, they will have had 10 days of rest by the time the Cup final starts in Boston on Monday night.
Usually, a layoff that long means a rusty team shows up for the first game of the next playoff round, but the break was just what Chara needed. Aside from showing signs of slowing down as the playoffs went on, Chara missed the last game of the Carolina series with an undisclosed injury.
However, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy says Chara will be in the lineup on Monday night. Also, Chara took part in the Bruins’ intramural scrimmage on Thursday night, Cassidy’s attempt to simulate a game experience in order to stave off the blahs.
Also playing Chara’s way is the matchup with the Blues. As San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said after losing to the Blues in the Western Conference final, “The two heaviest teams are in the final. There was no space [against the Blues]. They’re heavy, hard and organized. There wasn’t any room.”
This is just the kind of game Chara loves. He has a lot more fun banging heads with the likes of bruising Blues forwards than chasing around a bunch of sprites such as the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round.
But even a second Stanley Cup ring does not guarantee Chara will retire or fade away to playing in his native Slovakia. While he admits he is at the stage of his career where you take it one season at a time, he recently told NHL.com he has no plans to win and retire, citing the obligation of the final year of his contract.
Indeed, this is not the first time Chara was considered not quite up to a changing league. After the NHL first committed itself to more of a skating game following the season-long owners’ lockout in 2004-05, Chara had some troubles in the following season, although he still made the NHL’s second all-star team.
He was a sprightly 29 years old then, one of two star defencemen for the Ottawa Senators. In the summer of 2006, the Senators had to make one of those decisions that came with the salary cap following the lockout: With both Chara and Wade Redden up for new contracts, which one do we keep?
In a decision that still haunts the Senators, they awarded Redden the multimillion-dollar deal, which allowed the Bruins to snap up Chara for a five-year contract worth US$37.5-million. Within a year, Chara was a perennial contender for the Norris Trophy as the best NHL defenceman and Redden had started a decline in which he quickly lost his status as an elite NHLer.
Chara, on the other hand, remains captain of the Bruins and one of five Bruins (Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are the others) who remain from the 2011 champions. It is a leadership group Cassidy says he can’t do without.
“I think this leadership group is second to none,” the Bruins head coach said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever have, wherever this career takes me, a group like this to work with. I said that since probably the second week of our job here. These guys are fantastic, and they sure make a coach’s job a lot easier.”