By most measures – including the “eye test” – Zdeno Chara has lost a few steps, with last season providing the starkest example.
The tricky thing with declining superstars is weighing how you remember them vs. whether or not they remain effective. In the case of the Boston Bruins, the archaic structure of Chara’s contract makes it easier to reconcile his decline in 2017-18; his cap hit sinks from just under $7 million to a trimmer $4 million.
If things were totally fair to “The Big Z,” both fans and management would expect Chara’s work to be closer to that of a $4M player.
A No. 1 defenseman’s burden
Such a mindset would represent a change of pace, as reports of Chara’s decreased workload seem largely exaggerated.
Yes, 23:20 time on ice per game represents his lowest average since 2001-02, but he still easily topped all Bruins skaters in ice time. Torey Krug was second with 21:36 and Brandon Carlo was a quick study with 20:48, representing the only B’s who averaged 20+ minutes.
Those aren’t cushy minutes, either. Chara easily averaged the most shorthanded time per game, too, with 3:46 per night. Carlo came in second with just 2:36.
More of his shifts are starting in the defensive zone, too. In 2016-17, he began 58.9 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone versus just 41.1 in the offensive zone. That’s his highest d-zone percentage since Hockey Reference’s numbers began recording in 2007-08 and the lowest of his career for offense via those same metrics.
In stating that he wants to play beyond next season, Chara not-too-surprisingly welcomed the big minutes, as NESN reported in late April.
“I can only control what I can control, and that’s being in shape and when they give me those minutes, I’m handling them,” Chara said. “I love it. I enjoy it. I want to be on the ice all the time and I want to be on the ice in all the situations.”
Time to temper expectations?
Even at his advanced age, Chara tends to put up decent possession stats, though things admittedly get fuzzier when you go deeper.
To his credit, he’s still scoring at a decent clip, relatively speaking.
He generated a respectable 29 points (including a robust 10 goals) last season, and managed 37 in 2015-16.
Chara’s effectiveness seems to trend toward those offensive numbers lately. This chart compares him to its template for a No. 1 defenseman, and it seems that Chara seemingly slipped out of that designation:
By the fancy-stats-friendly (but also eye-friendly) setup of HERO charts, Chara probably rests closer to a No. 2 defenseman. There’s no shame in that, especially for a 40-year-old man, but his precipitous drop is as apparent in “fancy stats” terms as it is to most onlookers.
Pass the torch
As painful as 2016-17 was at times, it also seemed like Carlo and later, Charlie McAvoy, really rose up the ranks in the Bruins’ defense.
Between Carlo, McAvoy, and Torey Krug, Boston is gaining players they trust more and more. Even if Chara were to continue playing and continue playing with the Bruins, the 2017-18 season seems like an obvious time to transition a greater share of the responsibilities to younger blueliners.
Chara isn’t what he used to be, but he still has the potential to help the Bruins win. Just not like he used to, and if the B’s are smart, not even like he used to last season.