BOSTON — Zdeno Chara is 37 years old, but there’s no question he’s still capable of playing at a Norris Trophy-caliber level as the Bruins’ No. 1 defenseman.
Chara does have weaknesses — he’s not a speedy player, and that sometimes allows quicker, smaller forwards to beat him — but there’s not a more physically imposing defenseman in the NHL.
“Zdeno takes (conditioning) to another level, there’s no question,” Bruins president Cam Neely said Tuesday at TD Garden during media day. “For me, he plays well positionally, and he’s got such a long reach and he’s physical and he’s a smart player. Obviously, everybody as they get older, some elements of their game start to (weaken) a little bit. But for Zdeno, I still think he’s one of the top defenders in the game. He is not fun to play against, he’s very frustrating to play against, with his reach along and his positional play. It’s hard to beat the guy.”
The difference in the Bruins’ defensive performance when Chara is on the ice compared to when he’s not is significant. The charts below, via War on Ice, illustrate how Boston allows more shots from just about every single area of the ice when Chara is on the bench waiting for his next shift.
Chara’s defense is phenomenal, but he continues to be a threat in the attacking zone, too. His 17 goals in 2013-14 tied the second-highest single-season total of his career, and 10 of those goals were scored on the power play (two behind league leader Shea Weber). Chara also was a quality puck-possession player with a 55.24 corsi-for percentage last season, which shows Boston consistently outshot its opponent with the veteran D-man on the ice.
Aside from his on-ice performance, Chara also has a great influence on the Bruins’ young defensemen. One blueliner who played with Chara quite a bit last season and in the Stanley Cup playoffs is Dougie Hamilton. The 21-year-old is expected to play alongside the captain again in 2014-15, and the chemistry between them has improved.
“I’m obviously more comfortable now compared to how I was when I first started playing with him,” Hamilton said. “I know where he’s going to be and what passes he’s going to make and stuff like that. It’s just about helping each other out and moving the puck quick, and making it easy on ourselves.”
Playing with Chara has put Hamilton in positions where he’s had to defend the opponents’ top lines on a more consistent basis.
“I think it was a pretty tough adjustment when I first did it, and I’m used to it now,” Hamilton said. “It’s a challenge every night, every team has different players on that line with different skill sets and everything, so you really have to focus and be aware of certain guys at all times. I think it’s a different game when you’re playing third and fourth lines. You kind of have to change the way you play. For me, I just want to play and keep focusing on defense.”
If you look around the league, one of the common denominators among all of the championship-level teams is the presence of a No. 1, shut-down defenseman — guys like Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Ryan McDonagh, etc. Chara is one of those players, and the Bruins will continue to be a difficult team to play against for however long he’s on their blue line.