How long can Zdeno Chara keep this up?

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While he’s only taken one Norris Trophy in his already distinguished career, Zdeno Chara might just be the best defenseman in the NHL. He’s the common denominator in a Boston Bruins defense that helped Tim Thomas, Tuukka Rask and even backups like Anton Khudobin put up big numbers.*

Even so, the Bruins made a bold gamble by signing him to a seven-year, $45.5 million deal in 2010: they bet that he could be effective into his early 40’s. So far, at 36, he’s shown few signs of slowing down, but the question is: how long can he really keep this up?

Rather than focus on the negatives, let’s get them out of the way really quick: injury risks increase with age, and with a player at Chara’s unprecedented size, mobility and other assets can fall off rapidly.

With that out of the way, here are a few reasons why he could remain dominant for years.

Treating his body right

Chara isn’t just riding his history-making frame; he’s a fitness fanatic who’s made waves for his devotion to cycling.

The benefits of such habits are obvious, as we’ve previously seen with age-defying Detroit Red Wings defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios.

Cue awkward but requisite ESPN “The Body Issue” photo:

source:

Of course, being in prime condition doesn’t mean that injuries cannot strike.

While many wine-like-aging blueliners have leaned toward the “finesse” side – barring the occasional outlier such as Scott Stevens – Chara isn’t throwing around his body as much as one might expect.

Sure, he’s not shy, with 101 hits in 48 games played last season. Still, that ranks him third on his own team last season; his regular partner Dennis Seidenberg had 115 hits in two fewer contests. Fifty-nine NHL players delivered more hits than Big Z last season.

Usage

Chara uses positioning and his otherworldly reach in ways that seem heartening for his future. Even so, the worry is that the Bruins will run him into the ground with heavy minutes.

After studying the workloads of players like LidstromRay Bourque, and Al MacInnis, it was clear that elite blueliners received heavy minutes until their last season or two. Chara has been clocking about 25 minutes per contest for the last four seasons, which is a significant haul, but not outrageous for a top defenseman.

His 24:56 minutes per game ranked 15th in the NHL last season … five seconds fewer than Dennis Wideman. (Pauses for Bruins fans to snicker.)

All things considered, the Bruins could probably hand him the same basic workload for two or three more seasons without too many worries.

(Even if Chara’s struggles in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final weren’t just overblown, he’s consistently been a dominant force in his own zone. Overreacting to one series would probably be foolish.)

***

Father Time is a daunting opponent, but Chara could join that select group of defensemen who played at an all-world level deep into their careers. Perhaps that record-breaking slapper will slip a few miles per hour, but if he maintains his fitness level and is selective about throwing hits, the Big Z might gracefully become the Big Old Z.

Of course, a freak injury could just as easily scuttle those hopes.

* – Remember Manny Fernandez?

Bruins may give Lightning a fight for Atlantic title

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For a while there, the Boston Bruins’ excitement was at least a bit muted by lowered expectations. Yes, it would be great to get a round of home-ice advantage, but that’s not as sexy as going for a division title or more.

Now, it’s important to point out that the Bruins have some work to do, but if you look at the standings after their 4-1 win against the Canadiens and the Lightning’s 5-2 loss to the Wild, it’s not outrageous. The Bruins trail the Lightning by three standings points, and they hold a game in hand on Tampa Bay.

Lightning: 33-12-3, 65 points in 46 games
Bruins: 27-10-8, 62 points in 45 games

The Bruins can also close the gap in more direct ways by getting the best of the Lightning in head-to-head games. The two teams meet three more times this season, with two of those contests coming in Tampa Bay.

At a quick glance, the Bruins are certainly the hotter team, as they’re among the hottest teams in the NHL. Their point streak now extends back to an OT loss to the Rangers on Dec. 16 (12-0-4), including a three-game winning streak. The Lightning have been stumbling by their standards, with three straight losses and two wins in their last seven games.

The road ahead is bumpy for the Lightning, too.

Star defenseman Victor Hedman‘s window of recovery was placed at three-to-six weeks as of Jan. 12. A bye week softens the blow, but the Bolts have to cross their fingers that he falls closer to three weeks than six, as their upcoming schedule puts them in a vulnerable place.

Mon, Jan 22 @ Chicago
Tue, Jan 23 @ Nashville
Thu, Jan 25 @ Philadelphia
Tue, Jan 30 @ Winnipeg
Thu, Feb 1 @ Calgary
Sat, Feb 3 @ Vancouver
Mon, Feb 5 @ Edmonton
Thu, Feb 8 vs Vancouver
Sat, Feb 10 vs Los Angeles
Mon, Feb 12 @ Toronto
Tue, Feb 13 @ Buffalo
Thu, Feb 15 vs Detroit
Sat, Feb 17 vs New Jersey
Tue, Feb 20 @ Washington
Thu, Feb 22 @ Ottawa
Sat, Feb 24 @ Montreal

Tonight’s loss to the Wild began what could be a harrowing eight-game road trip for the Lightning. Overall, they play 12 of their next 16 games on the road. The Bruins face their own challenges as the season goes along, but for the near future, it’s a pretty moderate run. It’s also true that the Lightning will enjoy a stretch of home games too, with March holding the ripest opportunities.

Still, some damage might be done by then considering that tough month and Hedman’s at-least-partial absence, possibly enough for the Bruins to draw even (or close to even). It could be a tough haul even if Hedman can get back soon, honestly.

The smart money would still be on the Lightning winning the Atlantic, not to mention possibly getting the East’s top seed and maybe the Presidents’ Trophy as well. Either way, this is another reminder of how remarkable this surge has been for a Bruins team that was once 6-7-4 this season.

The B’s are justified in setting their sights higher than merely securing a playoff spot. For all we know, this could end up being one of the most captivating races down the stretch.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stars’ Klingberg is building serious Norris argument

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From Nicklas Lidstrom to Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman, NHL fans are used to Swedish defensemen being involved in Norris Trophy talks, and often winning the award outright. It’s about time that we add another name to the conversation: John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars.

Some might roll their eyes when points come up in the Norris discussion, but how could they not, especially in Klingberg’s case?

After collecting three assists in the Stars’ 7-1 Saturday squash of the Sabres, Klingberg now has a whopping 46 points in just 48 games. As of this writing, Klingberg leads all defensemen by 10 points. If he maintains that margin for the remainder of the 2017-18 season, it will be tough to deny Klingberg the first Norris Trophy in Stars history.

Klingberg’s 46 points tie him with Jamie Benn for the team points lead, and place him in a multi-player tie for 18th overall in the NHL.

About two weeks ago, Jamie Benn told the Dallas Morning News’ Mike Heika that Klingberg deserves consideration.

“One hundred percent,” Benn said. “He’s such a dynamic player, and a leader on this team. And I think this year he’s taking his game to another level, and it’s showing out there on the ice.”

It’s not just about the scoring. Klingberg is getting the ice time you’d expect from a Norris hopeful, with an average of 23:33 per game. While that isn’t in the Drew Doughty range, it shows that the slick Swede is a go-to guy for the Stars (he easily leads Dallas in ice time).

His all-around game is impressive. You can see strong possession stats at a glance at Hockey Reference, and with just 14 penalty minutes so far, he’s not hurting his team with bad discipline. While he’s not a primary penalty killer for Dallas, there’s some trust in that area, as he’s averaging 1:18 PK time per contest.

Maybe you’d lean more toward Doughty, Brent Burns, P.K. Subban, or Karlsson – it’s a dynamic and deep field this year – but Klingberg deserves consideration, and he’s already drawing favorable comparisons to beloved Stars blueliner Sergei Zubov (without the in-game smoking breaks, one would assume).

You could argue that Klingberg has been one of the greatest beneficiaries to Ken Hitchcock’s return to Dallas.

Not that long ago, Klingberg was suffering through healthy scratches as the Stars experienced a wildly disappointing 2016-17 season. Now he’s easily on pace to surpass his career-high of 58 points, and Klingberg might just collect some hardware in the process.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Johnson’s shot at Duchene makes lack of Colorado return a bummer

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Through a rare scheduling quirk, Matt Duchene‘s first game as a member of the Ottawa Senators against the Colorado Avalanche was both a letdown and a case of instant gratification.

The Senators faced the Avs on back-to-back games on Nov. 10 and 11, Duchene’s debut contests with Ottawa. That’s really something, but those contests took place in Sweden, so fans – and former teammates, honestly – were deprived of the spectacle of seeing Duchene return to town.

Barring a highly unlikely trade or an equally unlikely meeting in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (hey, the Avs are doing a better job holding up their end of the bargain in that regard), Duchene won’t play in Colorado as a member of the opposing team until 2018-19.

That was already a bummer, even before Colorado extended its scorching run to nine straight wins. That missed opportunity for drama and entertainment stings more today, though, as Erik Johnson took a swipe at Duchene without using his name, as NHL.com’s Rick Sadowski reports.

“The way things went last year, I think the easy thing to say would have been, ‘It’s not working here, let’s go somewhere else, let’s jump ship.’ The character guys and the core guys in this room said we want to figure things out here in Colorado and make it work,” Johnson said, via Sadowski.

Zing.

Again, Johnson didn’t add “Right, Matt Duchene?” at the end, so perhaps there’s plausible deniability right there. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Johnson wasn’t taking a shot at, say, Mikhail Grigorenko, though.

It’s disappointing that we won’t get to see those two teams play in North America until next season, but at least Erik Johnson provided the in-real-life answer to a “subtweet” on Matt Duchene, eh?

(Hot take: the NHL needs more smack-talking moments like these, even if names aren’t always named.)

In case you’re wondering

Duchene now has 13 points in 29 games with the Senators heading into Saturday’s action, numbers that lag behind his Colorado work (including 10 points in 14 sometimes-awkward games with the Avs in 2017-18).

That said, Duchene has been heating up lately, generating at least one point in four of his last five games (three goals and four assists for seven points during that span).

Samuel Girard has nine points (all assists) in 31 games with Colorado after generating a goal and two assists in five contests for Nashville. Girard has three assists in his last five appearances for the Avs. He also has seven assists during Colorado’s nine-game winning streak, even with more modest ice time than he first received with the Avalanche.

Kyle Turris‘ numbers are most relevant to Sens fans, but nonetheless: he’s been slowing down a bit with Nashville lately, yet he still has 19 points in 29 games as a member of the Predators.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Are boiling-hot Avalanche for real? We’ll find out soon

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If the Colorado Avalanche’s New Year’s resolution was to never lose again, they’ve been sticking to it so far.

With a 3-1 win against the New York Rangers today, the Avalanche are undefeated in 2018 (7-0-0), and that’s not even the extent of their ridiculous winning streak. They’ve now won nine games in a row, with this run stretching back to an overtime win against Toronto on Dec. 29.

The Avalanche are now at 26-16-3, a resounding rise from being under .500 not that long ago (they dipped to 12-13-2 on Dec. 7).

About two weeks ago, PHT glanced at the Avalanche when their winning streak was at five consecutive victories.

Since then, they’ve tacked on four more wins, outscoring opponents 15-6 during that span. It’s not as if they’re facing cupcakes, either, as these last four teams (Stars, Ducks, Sharks, and Rangers) are either in playoff position or are battling hard for a spot.

Many of the same things continue to go right for the Avalanche.

  • Nathan MacKinnon continues to battle for Hart recognition: MacKinnon scored a goal and an assist against the Rangers today, giving him 23 goals and 59 points in just 45 games this season. This is already the second-best total of his career, and his peak of 63 points isn’t far away. One could probably assume that Nate-Mac is more intrigued by the possibility of flirting with a 100-point season than any of his previous marks.

MacKinnon’s point streak now spans the Avalanche’s nine-game run: eight goals and 11 assists for a blistering 19 points. He’s currently ranked second in scoring with 59 points, just two points behind Nikita Kucherov‘s 61.

  • Jonathan Bernier is also leading the way: Remember when Bernier was going to be the next big thing?

Instead, he’s quietly showing why scouts were once so excited about him, and you wonder what the pending UFA ($2.75 million cap hit this season) might net the Avalanche if they’re not sold on his future. With injured would-be starter Semyon Varlamov only signed through 2018-19, Colorado has some questions to answer. That said, it’s a lot better to have multiple options in net than none.

Bernier is now on an eight-game winning streak and has won nine of 10 games. Bernier has an absurd .957 save percentage in seven January appearances.

The two have even combined for some highlights, conveniently enough.

Now, there are some caveats.

The Avalanche have played nine of their last 10 games at home. Only the Rangers have seen a more home-dominant start to 2017-18, as the Avs have played 26 games in Colorado versus just 19 on the road.

Starting Monday, the Avalanche will essentially see their schedule reverse:

Mon, Jan 22 @ Toronto
Tue, Jan 23 @ Montreal
Thu, Jan 25 @ St. Louis
Tue, Jan 30 @ Vancouver
Thu, Feb 1 @ Edmonton
Sat, Feb 3 @ Winnipeg
Tue, Feb 6 vs San Jose
Thu, Feb 8 @ St. Louis
Sat, Feb 10 @ Carolina
Sun, Feb 11 @ Buffalo

You could extend the tough times to about a month, really.

So far, the Avalanche are 18-7-1 at home and just 8-9-2 on the road. Of course, they’ll now be going on the road with a rejuvenated Bernier; with that in mind, maybe this stretch of away games will merely give the Avs a chance to drive home the point that they’re a true contender?

It’s already been a marvelous turnaround for this group, as they basically exceeded their atrocious 2016-17 season at the midway point of this one.

Much like MacKinnon in trying to do far more than merely set career-highs, the Avalanche don’t need to settle for moral victories right now. They’re getting plenty of actual victories, especially lately.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.