Zdeno Chara makes his Boston return while Bruins defense scrambles

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals. Pre-game coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

For the first time since 2006, Zdeno Chara will be in the Boston visitor’s locker room.

His former Bruins defense partner, Charlie McAvoy, was only eight years old.

So, it’s been a long time. Chara signed with the Capitals this offseason after the Bruins made it clear they wanted to head in another direction, prioritizing their younger defensemen.

Since that time, the Bruins defense has taken plenty of injury hits. One of those young defensemen, Jeremy Lauzon, has been out with a broken wrist. Matt Grzelcyk has barely played in a month and Kevan Miller, who missed essentially two years with injury before returning this season, is out again.

Instead it’s John Moore getting playing time, Connor Clifton being thrust into a bigger role, and prospect Urho Vaakanainen getting minutes.

It’s not how the Bruins drew it up, perhaps, when Chara headed to D.C.; hindsight is 20/20, but when they’re claiming 6-foot-6, left-handed shot Jared Tinordi off of waivers from Nashville two months after letting their captain go, that hindsight seems fair.

“Our depth has been challenged in terms of size,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said to reporters earlier this week. “Lauzon and Miller bring a lot of that element. With them being out — we don’t know on Miller, obviously, and with Jeremy it’s going to be four weeks minimum — this gives us a different look back there, a little more stiffness. It’s just a different element of a makeup of a back end.”

[PRE-GAME COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Chara has played in all 21 Capitals games this season, averaging 19:24 of ice time with two goals and four assists. His Corsi For at 48.43%, per Natural Stat Trick, projects to be higher than it was last season in Boston. He’s getting more offensive zone starts, with 35 this season through 21 games after just 85 all of last season. Working at 50% in the offensive zone is the highest it’s been since 2017-18, the only time he finished with higher than 50%.

On the other end, McAvoy has some freedom and has been playing the best hockey of his career, but a divorce of Chara and the Bruins is not mutually exclusive to that, since they could have paired him elsewhere anyways.

The Bruins defense sans McAvoy on the ice, though, is a bleaker picture.

Vaakanainen hasn’t taken the leap they hoped for, even with an extended role out of necessity. He struggled against the Islanders last week mightily. The 24-year-old Jakub Zboril has done admirably in his first full season, playing primarily on the third pairing, but with Miller out there’s been no consistency around him.

So, even as Grzelcyk inches closer to a return, enter Tinordi, a big left-handed defenseman because the Bruins lack size.

“Lauzon did that job. (Zdeno Chara) did that job,” said Cassidy. “Those three guys are not exactly the same, but they’re bigger bodies that can be shut down guys. I’m not going to say he’s going to go on the first pair because we haven’t seen him yet, but he is that type of defender who could find a lot of usage in our back end right now because we lack that, obviously.”

Hindsight is 20/20, and Chara wouldn’t have solved the injury bug in Boston, but as he continues to play well in Washington, the juxtaposition with the Bruins injuries, and lack of size, stands out.

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.

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