What are the Bruins going to do on defense?

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[UPDATE: The Bruins informed Chara they will be going in a younger direction, so the veteran has signed a one-year deal with the Capitals.]

There’s no reason to believe Zdeno Chara won’t be in a Bruins uniform to begin 2021.

Still, he remains unsigned, and that’s only the Bruins first question mark.

It’s hard to believe the 43-year-old would sign elsewhere at this point in his career, and given he’s still been around Boston during the offseason, there’s every indication he’s been waiting on the NHL schedule before making any sort of decision.

But, even if assuming Chara is back for the B’s, there’s still a lot of questions on the blue line. Torey Krug is gone, and while Matt Grzelcyk does a lot of the same things nicely to an extent, he’s not Krug.

There’s an immediate hit to their depth overall, and losing Chara — if that’s even on the table — would have an even bigger impact. The top of the Bruins’ defense — Grzelcyk, Charlie McAvoy, and Brandon Carlo — is as good as anyone’s, but then it drops off.

They have about $3 million in cap space, per Cap Friendly, to play around with, but the market looks rather grim with most free agents finding a home and the trade market on the blue line fading after Oliver Ekman-Larsson stayed put.

So, that’s the long way of getting to the question — how are the Bruins going to look on the backend this season?

If Chara returns

It’s tough to see Chara on the same pairing as McAvoy this time around. He and former Boston University defense pairing Grzelcyk have had a ton of success together (59.69% even-strength CF%, per Natural Stat Trick) when they’ve been paired at the NHL level, and sans Krug as a puckmover in the top four, it seems like that pairing is destined to be.

Chara has been connected to playing with Connor Clifton on the bottom pairing. In Clifton’s first few NHL games Chara was paired there, and it worked pretty well. As Carlo looks for a partner on his left to replace Krug — likely Jeremy Lauzon –, it seems Chara and Clifton is a decent option as the third pair.

“I think it really depends on what he feels he can do to help us, and we have to feel the same way,” Bruins president Cam Neely said to the media last week. “How that looks – is that something that he would be comfortable with, how we maybe envision it looking, compared to maybe how he feels it may look?”

Chara’s time on ice took a dip last season with a 21:01 average, his lowest since his rookie season. It appears if he’s back, his role will have to be reduced somewhat, even while he’s still a tremendous asset on the penalty kill.

If Chara Doesn’t Return

This is the more concerning scenario in the short term but it might be a chance for some of the young left-handed shots to finally get a real shot.

Urho Vaakanainen, 21, is going to have to get a long look at some point. Jakub Zboril, 23, had a much stronger showing with AHL Providence last season as well, and as a first-rounder from 2015, they’re going to want to see what he can do.

Assuming Lauzon takes over with Carlo, that’s a lot of youth in the lineup, and while yes, the Bruins do need to figure out what they have in their young defenders, it’s still a risk to go into an intensive schedule without much of a backup plan.

[MORE: NHL releases 2020-21 schedule]

There’s always John Moore, in the third year of a five-year contract, but he hasn’t panned out at all. Playing him to take away much time from the young guys also negates any reasoning towards a desire to move away from Chara.

“We do want to take a look at some of these young left-shot D’s that we have in our system, see if they can step up, or is it the time for them to step up and see where they’re at in their development,” Neely said last Monday. “We certainly respect Zdeno and everything he’s done for the organization and what he’s accomplished as a player and what he’s done both on and off the ice here in Boston.”

Then there’s Kevan Miller, who didn’t get on the ice at all last season after an injury in the 2019 playoffs. He’s on the right side anyhow, where there’s already a backlog, and even if he had an obvious spot to slide into, he has to be a question mark.

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Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.