One of the stranger Boston Bruins-related storylines of this coronavirus-pandemic year has been the plight of captain Zdeno Chara who remains, one day after the NHL and NHLPA announced their plan to return to play, unsigned as an unrestricted free agent.
Listening to Bruins president Cam Neely address the media Monday for the first time since the Jan. 13 NHL start date was established, one could easily get the feeling the Bruins aren’t gung-ho to bring back the 43-year-old.
“For me, it’s tough to say,” Neely replied to a question about what Chara’s role would be with Boston if he re-signs. “You know we do want to take a look at some of these young left-shot Ds that we have in our system, see if they can step up or if there’s time for them to step up, see where they’re at in their development. 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. So it’s really just a matter of what his desire is and how the coaching staff and we feel what our lineup should look like and could look like depending on the development of some of these young guys.”
Later when asked if there’s a roster spot for Chara considering all the defensemen that are signed and the Bruins’ close brush with the salary-cap ceiling, Neely alluded to the idea that any Chara role with the Bruins would be limited both because of the club’s desire to see how the younger players have grown and the fact that there are going to be about 116 days to play 56 games. That’s a lot of back-to-backs.
Obviously, the following arguments become naught if Chara and the Bruins agree to another one-year deal (he played for just $2 million in salary and $1.75 million in bonuses last season) in the days ahead. But the Bruins clearly need a history lesson in order to take bringing Chara back more seriously.
First, the shortened, compact season is an even bigger reason to re-sign Chara than it is to let him walk. Obviously, he’d have to agree to a somewhat curtailed role in terms of 5-on-5 ice time and even taking half of some of those back-to-backs off to preserve his legs for the long haul. But he could still play 48-50 games and serve as a mentor and extra coach when he’s not in the lineup.
Getting off to a fast start will be of the utmost importance playing in such a crammed schedule with some of the powers of the NHL all squeezed into the new East Division. The Bruins know they’re going to be missing David Pastrnak and might be without Brad Marchand, or have a lesser version of Marchand, at the start of this season. Do they really want to voluntarily open a gaping hole in their defense corps and penalty kill?
There is no reason to believe that any of Jeremy Lauzon, Urho Vaakanainen, Jakub Zboril, or first-year pro Jack Ahcan is ready to take on that much responsibility, even if it’s shared with the likes of Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk, and John Moore. Heck, we don’t even really know what Connor Clifton has in store for 2021.
That leads to the second part of the history lesson. Seemingly every time the Bruins have started a season by saying “let’s see what the kids can do before we turn to a veteran” they wind up finding out that Anders Bjork or Reilly Smith or even, on the back end, a younger Torey Krug or Grzelcyk, isn’t ready for the big time. The trade deadline then becomes a desperation heave from general manager Don Sweeney to address a hole he should’ve filled in the offseason. The Bruins wind up surrendering a first-round pick. It’s as predictable as the tides.
Here the Bruins don’t have to worry about bringing in the player to fill the hole unless Neely’s nod to wanting to “explore the back end” in terms of improvement means he’s hot for the likes of Sami Vatanen or Ron Hainsey on the free-agent market. Yawn.
In this case, the play is easy. Assuming he’s amenable to it — and considering the number of teams with little cap space or a bigger role to offer a 43-year-old stay-at-home defenseman, it’s likely he’s not going to get a better deal elsewhere — Chara should be retained for the same contract he signed last season. Or the Bruins will be increasing the odds that their shortened season will turn into a lost season.