Zdeno Chara isn’t like most defensemen.
For the Bruins captain, the 2009-10 season was a frustrating campaign he’d just as soon forget. He spent most of the year playing with a mangled left hand that limited his effectiveness both offensively and physically.
Chara’s seven goals were his lowest total since his final year with the Islanders, when he scored just two in 2000-01. And those seven goals were barely a third of the career-high 19 he scored in 2008-09, when he finished with a career-best 50 points and won his first Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.
The lack of scoring wasn’t from a lack of trying. Chara put a career-high 242 shots on goal. And it wasn’t from a lack of accuracy. Chara missed just 71 attempts after having 92 missed shots in 2008-09 to go along with his previous high of 216 shots on goal.
The problem was that those shots didn’t have the usual power Chara could generate. The man who broke Al Iafrate’s 16-year-old record at the 2009 Skills Competition with a 105.4 mph blast in the hardest shot competition wasn’t able to launch his usual lasers past goalies with half a hand, which was jammed between his leg and the boards on a hit by Toni Lydman in Buffalo on Nov. 20.
“That part of the season when I had the cast on, for that 8-10 weeks, obviously I couldn’t shoot like I had,” said Chara after the season. “Holding the stick in basically three fingers on my bottom hand, it wasn’t pretty. I tried to shoot the puck as hard as I could to make it work, but no matter what you do, if you lose your pinky and ring finger, that’s basically 60 percent of your grip. I don’t like to use excuses. I decided to play with [the injury] and tried to do what I could.”
The injury also took away some of Chara’s intimidating presence. While his hit totals didn’t decline much (151 last year compared to 169 in 2008-09) and being slammed by a 6-foot-9, 255-pound battering ram is never pleasant, opponents knew they could get away with more liberties against both Chara and his smaller teammates because Chara couldn’t fight with the injury.
“When I had that cast on I couldn’t [fight], those 9-10 weeks and even after that it was impossible,” said Chara. “If I got into a fight with a cast I would get suspended. It was as simple as that.”
Even after the cast was removed, the injury was still not completely healed. And finding willing opponents was a challenge as well.
“It was possible,” said Chara of fighting after the cast was off late in the year. “I tried, but you need two people [to have a fight].”
Chara ended up having just one fight, taking on Pittsburgh’s Mike Rupp on March 18. He picked up another fighting major against Buffalo in the playoffs, but that was in an end-game scrum that didn’t really feature any punches being thrown.
The good news is that Chara didn’t require surgery over the summer and should be fully healthy for the start of camp. The bad news is that he now has a growing list of injuries, including several to his hands, on his record. At his age — he turned 33 the same night he was trading punches with Rupp — and with the style of game he plays, the Bruins can’t assume he’ll stay healthy for long.
The one thing they do know, however, is that it will take a heck of a lot to actually get an injured Chara out of the lineup. Since missing 16 games with a shoulder injury in 1999-2000, Chara has played at least 71 games in every season and has missed just a total of 11 games in his first four years in Boston.
“I’ll always try to play the game no matter what,” said Chara. “Even if I’m hurt or disabled in some way, I’ll still always try to play.”
Nagging injuries still can take a toll on his effectiveness. After 13 long, hard years in the league, Chara could be on the downside of his career and a return to the level of play in his Norris-winning season may not be likely.
But even if the 2008-09 season may have been his peak, that doesn’t mean he still can’t be among the best blueliners in the NHL for a few more years, and he’ll have plenty of incentive to prove that as he seeks a new contract with his current five-year, $37.5-million deal entering its final season. Chris Pronger is probably the closest parallel to Chara in size and style, and he certainly didn’t look over the hill in leading the Flyers to the finals in his 16th season last year. So there’s no reason to write off Chara’s ability to dominate the game either.
Chara will also benefit from having a full season of either Dennis Seidenberg or Johnny Boychuk beside him. Chara clicked with both players late last year much better than he had with Derek Morris. Seidenberg forged an immediate chemistry with Chara when he joined the Bruins at the trade deadline, while Boychuk also played well with him after Seidenberg suffered a season-ending wrist injury. Seidenberg provides the same kind of shot-blocking presence that Aaron Ward — Chara’s partner when he won the Norris in 2008-09 — brought, while adding a better transition game.
There’s no guarantee that Chara will have to make room on his mantel for another Norris Trophy, but he was still pretty darn good in a “down” year last season and should be back to being even more of a force with two good hands this season.
NESN.com will answer one Bruins question every day in August.
Saturday, Aug. 7: Can Tuukka Rask avoid a sophomore slump and repeat his success of last season?
Monday, Aug. 9: Can Shawn Thornton hold up against the new heavyweights in the Eastern Conference?