The Boston Bruins told us that Zdeno Chara was waiting to see what the 2020-21 NHL season was going to look like before he made a decision on his future.
We were told, again by the Bruins (this time via president Cam Neely instead of general manager Don Sweeney) that Chara’s thoughts on his role and what the Bruins had to offer in terms of playing time might not be congruent but that the Bruins valued his services.
But then the Bruins captain took to Instagram on Wednesday and told us what was really what.
“My family and I have been so fortunate to call the great city of Boston our home for over 14 years. Recently, The Boston Bruins have informed me that they plan to move forward with their many younger and talented players and I respect their decision. Unfortunately, my time as the proud Captain of the Bruins has come to an end.”
Not long after that post, it was announced Chara, four days before the start of NHL training camps, had signed a one-year deal worth $795,000. Ouch.
This decision by Sweeney & Co. will take a world-champion dreidel player’s level of spin to explain how it makes any sense at this point in time during the coronavirus era of the NHL to remove such a vital piece of the lineup with little to replace him.
It’s debatable whether the Bruins have as many “younger and talented players” as they think they have. They’re definitely “younger.” But for several years few experts have given the Bruins’ prospects pool anything near a high grade, and the defense hasn’t been at the head of the class in those assessments.
Even if they’re “talented” enough for the long haul to prove those experts wrong, how long is it going to take for the likes of Urho Vaakanainen, Jakub Zboril and/or Jeremy Lauzon to emerge as legitimate top-four defensemen?
Because in case the Bruins didn’t notice, time is not on their side. There’s a 56-game condensed schedule coming up. The normal growing pains of young defensemen, especially when there’s multiple green blueliners in the lineup together, could be a roadblock to the Bruins getting off to the requisite fast start in this season.
So many Bruins prospects, in the past decade alone, have sputtered at the start of their careers when they were expected to seize a job. We’re not just talking about the Ryan Spooner-level busts. Anders Bjork, Matt Grzelcyk, and others needed more AHL seasoning after their initial NHL experience. There’s no way Sweeney can be so certain that all his prized prospects are ready to just pick up where Chara and Torey Krug left off and the Bruins will be playing on the Fourth of July. If more John Moore or Kevan Miller or Connor Clifton playing on the left side are some sort of Plan B, please don’t reveal Plan C.
The shortened season isn’t the only thing pushing the sands through the Bruins’ hourglass faster. Patrice Bergeron is 35, David Krejci is 34 and Tuukka Rask is 33. Even Brad Marchand is 32. Krejci and Rask are entering the last year of their contracts. If the idea was to go for it one more time with this core — and a shortened season might’ve been the perfect time to take advantage not just of their talent, but their chemistry — those pillars of the organization are now left to wonder what kind of season this club will have with such a drop-off on its back end. Sure Grzelcyk, Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo are a decent top three, but after that the Bruins lack the size, grit and experience to handle the cream of the East Division, let alone go deep in the postseason.
Obviously having 43-year-old Chara in the defense corps for the unusually heavy schedule was going to be a challenge. He was going to have to accept a cut in minutes and possibly even some nights in the press box. But that can’t be the reason he left, considering he’s joining a Capitals lineup that already has Brenden Dillon, Michal Kempny, Dmitry Orlov, and Jonas Siegenthaler on its left side. The Capitals obviously understand the need for depth, experience and durability in the upcoming season. He knows he’s not going to be logging 2009-level top-pair minutes.
The Bruins, on the other hand, are paying Miller more than the Caps will pay Chara. They’re rolling the dice that their young defensemen will all play at a level we’ve never seen them reach as pros. And they’re betting that if the defense is a little leakier than usual, Rask and 35-year-old Jaroslav Halak are going to be able to reach Jennings Trophy form.
All the Bruins had to do was put off their great “youth movement” a few more months, pay their loyal captain less than $1 million and go for it one last time before the corps has to break up. If they were going to go this route so soon, they should’ve traded Krug before last year’s deadline and they should’ve moved on from Rask this summer.
A rebuild by any other name is still a rebuild. There’s an argument to be made for the Bruins needing one, but this was not the time. Now was the time go put all the chips in and try to win one last Cup before the major roster overhaul happens.