Bruins Mailbag: Zdeno Chara Leads by Example, Effectively Fulfills Role as Captain

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Bruins Mailbag: Zdeno Chara Leads by Example, Effectively Fulfills Role as Captain For most of the season, the Bruins had avoided the extended highs and lows of the roller-coaster ride that is the long and winding NHL season. They hadn't won more than four games in a row, but they also hadn't lost more than three straight.

That's all changed in the last few weeks. The Bruins rattled off a seven-game win streak that included a perfect 6-0-0 road trip, and Bruins fans were suddenly checking on the availability of duck boats for a late-June parade. Then they dropped four straight, and many of the same fans still wanted to see them in the Charles River — only this time in cement shoes rather than topside on the boats.

In the midst of all that, there was that little incident up in Montreal, where Zdeno Chara's hit on Max Pacioretty wasn't deemed worthy of a suspension by the league, but led to fan protests, a criminal investigation and sponsors threatening to pull out of NHL advertising in a hysterical overreaction of unprecedented proportions. Needless to say, there are a few topics to cover in this week's edition of the Bruins mailbag.

As always, I'd like to thank all the readers who sent in questions for this edition of the mailbag, and I apologize in advance if I wasn't able to get to yours. Please keep submitting your questions, and I'll get to as many of them as I can as we head down the home stretch of the season.

Do you feel that [Zdeno] Chara is the best selection for captain of this team? No issue with what he brings to the game, but don't you think the team needs a different kind of leader other than the tall silent type?
–Frank D

This isn't meant to single out Frank's query, but rather to address the numerous questions this week about Chara's fitness to be captain — a tiresome topic that seems to crop up over and over again every time the Bruins lose a couple of games.

First of all, these players are professionals, and if they need someone — whether it's a coach, a captain or anyone else — screaming at them to get them motivated to play their best, then they don't belong in the league. There are many ways to lead beyond the obvious yelling and screaming, which is often one of the least effective methods because it quickly loses its effect when overused. Chara leads more by example, whether through his rigorous workout regimen, taking time to work with the younger players and, yes, even occasionally getting vocal when needed. That's a relatively rare occurrence, but that likely just makes those occasions even more impactful.

I'm not sure how this myth of a captain needing to be some sort of a combination of a cheerleader and a Marine drill instructor came about. That wasn't Ray Bourque's persona, and no one was clamoring to strip the C off that No. 77 sweater. I can't recall anyone in Detroit complaining about Steve Yzerman being too quiet. I'm not putting Chara on that level. I'm just pointing out that effective leadership can come in all kinds of forms and be different at many varying volume levels. 

And just because Chara is wearing the C doesn't mean that anyone else is prohibited from speaking up when needed. Having a letter is required to speak to the officials on the ice. There's no such protocol in the locker room. Does anyone really think that Mark Recchi, Patrice Bergeron, Shawn Thornton or any other veteran won't speak up in the locker room when there's something that needs to be discussed or addressed, just because they don't have a C on their jersey? That's nonsense. There are plenty of leaders on this team that all have different methods of leading. First and foremost among those leaders is Chara. There is no doubt that he is respected in that room, whether he yells and screams in front of the cameras enough for the fans or not.

Why doesn't the NHL just mandate a change to Olympic rink size — more time and space for everyone, as today's players have simply outgrown the rink. I recognize the suggestion comes at some dollar cost and disruption to the owners, but isn't it worth the price to restore the game and to provide an answer to the injury problem?
–Phil

You answered your own question in part, as the cost involved really makes this one a non-starter. Beyond the expense of the construction of larger rinks in the arenas, there's also the lost revenue from taking away seats in the most expensive areas down low along the glass. Do you really think owners are going to go for having a few less rows of seats when so much of their profit is tied to the gate, as opposed to other major sports with far more lucrative TV deals? And don't forget the fact that not all NHL teams own their buildings, so this isn't something the league can simply dictate doing even if they were willing to take the financial hit.

Beyond the economics, there's also no guarantee that this change would solve anything as far as injuries are concerned. I don't have the data to compare the rate of concussions or other injuries between the NHL and European leagues that use the larger ice, but I do know there are still plenty of injuries and concussions over in Europe. In fact, the larger ice surface could prove even more dangerous. While some concussions are caused by collisions, inadvertent or intentional, that may be avoided with more room to maneuver, with the new rules instituted after the lockout to speed up the game, it's just as likely that a bigger ice surface would create even more violent collisions. With the clutching and grabbing largely eliminated and defensemen unable to hold up forecheckers to protect their partners, many of the injuries are caused because the speeds at which players collide now are higher than ever before. Giving players even more open space to build up speed on the way to a hit could be even riskier. 

Hi Doug, just want to say I'm a huge fan of yours. I'm also a huge fan of both the Canadiens and Bruins (Bruins first, long story). Do you think the Bruins have what it takes to get past the Canadiens if they meet in the playoffs, especially the first round? Thanks.
–Andy Gregoire, Burrillville, RI

Thanks! That must really be a long story because it would take a whole lot of explaining to both fan bases to get them to accept how you can root for both the Bruins and the Habs. As for the potential matchup, it's certainly one the Bruins would have to be wary of, though not just because the Bruins are 1-3-1 against the Habs so far this year. Regular-season results often don't translate to the playoffs. That's been reflected in the last few meetings between the Bruins and Canadiens. While Boston dominated the season series in 2008-09 and went on to sweep the Habs in the opening round, the Bruins also went 0-7-1 against them the previous season and still pushed Montreal to seven games. In 2004, the Bruins didn't lose in regulation in six games against Montreal, but fell in the playoffs in seven games. Boston also had a winning record against the Habs in 2001-02 and lost that playoff series in six games.

That said, Montreal is still not an ideal matchup for this Bruins squad. Boston has struggled to contain the Habs' speed and other than that one memorable night in February at the Garden, the Canadiens usually won't engage the Bruins in the kind of physical game Boston thrives in. The Bruins struggle to generate their own emotion and energy at times when not faced by a team that pushes back, and Montreal has often frustrated them in that way.

As is often the case in the playoffs, another potential Boston-Montreal showdown will likely come down to goaltending. Tim Thomas and Carey Price have arguably been the top two netminders in the league this season. Boston's goaltending would hold a major advantage over most teams, but Montreal negates that with how Price has played this year. Price has also had quite a bit of success against the Bruins (13-3-2, 2.55 GAA, .919 save percentage), while Thomas has struggled against the Habs (9-14-4, 3.16 GAA, .904 save percentage). Like the team results, the goalie stats from the regular season don't always translate to the playoffs either, but Price having more wins against Boston than any other opponent and Thomas having more losses against Montreal than any other team doesn't seem to bode well.

Can the Bruins beat Montreal? Certainly. They did it in their last playoff matchup in 2009. But it won't be easy, and as exciting as renewing that rivalry in the postseason would be, the Bruins probably wouldn't mind skipping it this year or at least putting it off for a couple rounds.

The history of Coach [Claude] Julien has the late-season firing by New Jersey. Are there any similarities to what was happening on that team and what the Bruins team is going through now? The team came off the road trip with some decent wins under their belt and even put in a rare high-energy home game against Tampa, but something has really driven the "mojo" out of this team. During the Pittsburgh game the B's looked scared, were intimidated, didn't finish checks. Injuries are there with the defensemen but the team looks like last year's that couldn't hold a lead and barely was in the playoff race. Just needed to vent, thanks for reading.
–Kurt, Sutton

Please don't bring back the "mojo" term. It conjures up too many bad memories of the Dave Lewis era, as he was the coach that introduced that term to the Bruins' lexicon. And even Julien's harshest critics would have to admit that the Bruins are a far, far better and more entertaining team than what the region's hockey fans suffered through on Lewis' watch.

Julien will always have questions surrounding him because of the unusual circumstances surrounding his exit from New Jersey in 2007, but I don't see anything similar with what's going on here in Boston this year — beyond the fact that Julien once again has his team in first place in his division late in the season. There were allegedly issues between some of the veteran players and Julien in New Jersey, but there has been absolutely no evidence of that in the Bruins' room. I also think that a big factor, maybe the main factor, in Lou Lamoriello's decision to fire Julien was that he was hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again after the Devils won the Cup in 2000 after he fired Robbie Ftorek in late March with New Jersey in first place in the East. It didn't work out quite so well in 2007, with the Devils falling in five games to Ottawa in the second round.

Julien isn't going to be fired heading into these playoffs. Another disappointing showing in the postseason might make for some changes in the offseason, but not now.

That's not to say there aren't issues with the team now. I don't buy that the Bruins were scared or intimidated by the Penguins at all, but they have gotten away from the physical game a bit of late. Not only do they create more offense when they're hitting and playing more aggressively, but they also wear teams down that way which helps them hold on to leads and close out games. They need to get back to that. Getting the defense healthy again will help, as the ice time will be better split between the D-men to keep everyone fresher and allow for more of that physical play. But the Bruins also need to get the forwards outside of the Krejci line going again and find a way to shore up their dismal special-teams play.

Doug I am going to put you on the spot, but everyone is dancing around this "hockey play" or "intent" question and I hope you will answer some good honest questions that people seem to want to avoid. 1. Do you believe Chara would have done the same identical play had he been checking [Sidney] Crosby and not [Max] Pacioretty? 2. If it was a hockey play, and as far as I know interference isn't, then why didn't Chara just impede Max's progress with a neutral-zone hook instead of riding a guy into the stanchion when he didn't have the puck?
–Kessel

I've written and spoken extensively on Chara's hit in the past week, so I won't rehash too much of it again here now, but I do believe the NHL was correct in not suspending Chara. I do believe it was a hockey play with tragic consequences and that Chara in no way intended for such a devastating result to occur. I am skeptical of Chara's statement that he didn't know it was Pacioretty he was hitting on the play. It's hard to imagine a defenseman wouldn't be aware of who was on the ice opposite him, especially as that play happened right after a faceoff and not while lines may have been changing on the fly. And I wouldn't be surprised if Chara had gone out of his way to finish a hit on Pacioretty based on their prior history, even if it meant taking an interference penalty, while he might have pulled back against another player.

No one but Chara knows whether that was the case or not, but I wouldn't have a problem with it if it was. That's hockey. But there's a huge difference between finishing a hit, even one after the puck was long gone, and deliberately trying to severely injure someone. There's no place in the game for that sort of a deliberate, predatory act. But in my opinion, that wasn't the case here. I don't think for a second that Chara intended to injure Pacioretty in that way.

As for your second question, I have to answer it with a question for you. How exactly is an interference penalty not a hockey play, but a hooking penalty is? If you're going to argue that interference isn't a hockey play because it's against the rules, then you have to apply that logic to every penalty. And yes, I understand the futility of asking to apply logic in a debate as heated as the one that continues to rage over this hit. 

Figured I would give you something else to talk about rather than the Chara hit. The Bruins picked up [Tomas] Kaberle, [Chris] Kelly and [Rich] Peverley. I like it but I really think they should have tried getting a goal-scorer. Not to bust chops, I know you were right when I asked about Brad Boyes and he's not a great goal-scorer, but he got the game-winner the other night [for] Buffalo. Why didn't they get [Alex] Kovalev? I like the Bruins offense as a whole but I think down the stretch if they want a Cup they needed another goal scorer. Do you bring up [Ryan] Spooner? I think so!
–Josh from Lynn

Would it have been nice to add a goal-scorer in addition to the other pieces they brought in? Sure. But the Bruins could only do so much with the assets they had available to part with and the cap space they were working with. While the early returns on the three players they acquired have been a bit underwhelming, I don't fault them for prioritizing upgrading their mobility on defense and depth up front over seeking a pure scorer. There wasn't really a legitimate top-six forward on the market that would have been a fit for this team. Alex Kovalev certainly wouldn't have been it. He doesn't fit into the Bruins' style or system at all and would only have been a distraction and disappointment here. He may end up thriving in Pittsburgh, though I'm not convinced even in a more open system he has all that much left in the tank.

Rich Peverley hadn't done much before that short-handed goal on Tuesday night, but from what I saw of him in Atlanta, I'd take him over Kovalev at this stage of their careers without any hesitation. Chris Kelly I can see as perhaps being a bit redundant and I'm wary about having his cap hit on the books next year as well, but he does add some very good depth.

As for Ryan Spooner, he cannot he recalled until his junior team's season is over, and his Kingston squad has already qualified for the OHL playoffs. Even if he were eligible, he isn't ready for the NHL yet, much less for being thrown into the fire of a stretch run and postseason. He was very impressive in camp and is having an excellent year in junior. He's got a bright future ahead of him, but he's at least a year, and realistically probably a couple of years, away from being ready to compete at the NHL level. You've seen the struggles Tyler Seguin has had adjusting this year, and he is more talented and advanced than Spooner. Give the kid the proper time to develop and then reap the benefits. There's no need to rush him.

To submit a question to Douglas Flynn for future mailbags, click here or contact him on Twitter @douglasflynn.

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