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:

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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?