Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.
While Boston sports fans have been spoiled by a wave of championships across several leagues, you could make a similar argument for Boston Bruins fans when it comes to watching great defensemen.
Most obviously, they had Bobby Orr in all of his statue-worthy glory. People who were lucky enough to be alive to see his too-brief prime still often rank him as the greatest player – not just defenseman – to ever lace up the skates, and it’s not outrageous to have that debate.
Plenty of other names come to mind, with Ray Bourque enjoying a transcendent, high-scoring career in his own right.
It’s time to place Zdeno Chara‘s name in that select group.
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For such a tall player, it makes sense to consider the highest heights of his career, of which there have been many:
- Chara has served as captain of the Bruins since 2006-07, becoming one of just three European-born captains to win a Stanley Cup when Boston won it all in 2010-11.
- This marks the Bruins’ third trip to a Stanley Cup Final during Chara’s time, as they also came within two wins (and suffered through 17 wild seconds) of another championship when they fell to Chicago in 2012-13.
- Chara won the 2008-09 Norris Trophy, and was a finalist on five other occasions. Personally, I believe that Chara should have won at least one other Norris during his splendid career.
- Overall, Chara’s played in 1,485 regular season games, and an impressive 175 playoff contests.
- While Chara probably would’ve won another Norris or two if he was a more prolific scorer, he’s a guy who’s been able to contribute offensively, too, collecting 10 seasons of 10+ goals, including 19 in 2008-09.
The numbers can get pretty mind-boggling with Chara, yet the story becomes even bigger (almost larger than life?) when you zoom out.
As tough as it’s always been to miss a 6-foot-9 fitness freak, there have been moments in his career where his brilliance was overlooked, or at least misjudged. Infamously, the New York Islanders traded away Chara before they really knew what they had, but the Ottawa Senators also let him walk in free agency, possibly choosing Wade Redden over Chara.
Betting against Chara was clearly a bad idea, but then again, it’s easy to forget just how much of an anomaly he truly is.
Alongside Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton, Chara’s managed astounding longevity, as he remains a key part of the Bruins even at age 42.
Sure, Chara isn’t playing almost half of every Bruins playoff game like he did during his gaudy peak, but he’s still important. It’s almost unthinkable that Chara is basically breaking even at five-on-five (via Natural Stat Trick), especially since he’s still called upon in tough situations, as he saw plenty of John Tavares and Mitch Marner during the Maple Leafs series, for example.
Chara isn’t just an impossibly huge defenseman who can still, somehow, keep up enough with young skaters that he remains a useful player for Boston to this day. He’s also someone who probably set expectations too high for plenty of players who’d come after him.
Would players like Tyler Myers, Rasmus Ristolainen, or even Colton Parayko have gotten the same looks in today’s NHL if Chara didn’t show teams that a huge defensemen could find ways to keep up, whether that meant leveraging an outrageous reach or the natural intimidation factor that comes with such size? In breaking the mold, Chara also set a high bar: just about any skyscraper-type prospect could be compared to Chara, especially since “The Big Z” is considered a late bloomer.
While others show that bigger guys can still play (Parayko, Dustin Byfuglien, and so on), there’s really only one Zdeno Chara.
When you think about it, in a less media-saturated age, Chara would probably inspire Paul Bunyan-like stories.
After all, this isn’t just a large dude, it’s also the player whose 108.8 mph slapshot may not be matched for years. He’s scaled mountains. Chara seems to project the typical “Aw, shucks” hockey attitude, yet it’s clear that his ambition separates himself from the rest, and elevates him to a special place among Bruins legends.
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While Chara can be a punishing presence, and maybe blurs the line from time to time, he doesn’t have the mean streak of another elite, gigantic defenseman like Chris Pronger. “Gentle giant” might be too much, but Chara rarely resembles the bully he easily could be. To an extent, his towering presence does the bullying for him.
The Bruins have enjoyed a strong run of goalies as Tim Thomas passed the torch to Tuukka Rask, but who knows how successful those goalies would have been without the combination of Chara and Patrice Bergeron?
Adding young players like Charlie McAvoy and David Pastrnak breathed new life into this Bruins’ core, but remarkably enough, Chara remains a huge part of that foundation, and not just literally.
This run cements a thought that probably already should have been present: Chara belongs on the short list of Bruins legends. Winning another Stanley Cup would only make it tougher to deny — and it would also tie Chara with a certain No. 4.
STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
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• Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.