BOSTON — Irreplaceable. That’s how multiple Bruins players described captain Zdeno Chara after Thursday night’s 3-2 loss to the New York Islanders.
Chara, the Bruins’ captain and No. 1 defenseman, left that game in the first period and didn’t return. He suffered a knee injury, according to reports, and is expected to miss at least a month as a result.
UPDATE (11:45 a.m.): Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli announced Friday that Chara is out four to six weeks with a PCL tear in his knee. Surgery isn’t needed at this time.
–End of Update–
“Like I said, he?s an irreplaceable player,” Bruins forward Chris Kelly said, before the reports on the extent of Chara’s injury. “He plays every situation for us and he?s our leader. We?re gonna need to fill that void collectively as a group. Not just one guy is going to be able to do that.”
There is speculation that the injury occurred during a collision with Islanders captain John Tavares.
No one on the Bruins’ roster is capable of filling in for Chara at either end of the ice. In fact, no player in the league is capable of filling that role. It wasn’t surprising to see Boston’s defense fall apart and allow two goals to the Islanders after Chara exited the game.
The 37-year-old is one of the three best defensemen in the NHL, and has been for almost a decade. He tallies between 40 and 50 points per season, plays a shutdown defensive role against the opponents’ top lines and is a key part of both special teams units (2:33 of power play and 3:25 of short-handed ice time per game). His size (6-foot-9) and his strength make him unique.
The chart below helps show Chara’s immense value to the Bruins. He leads the team’s defensemen in ice time (21:41/game), plays against the toughest competition, drives puck possession (55.37 Corsi-for percentage) and starts most of his shifts in the defensive zone.
Chara has been one of the few constants for a B’s team that has dealt with so many injuries in recent years. He’s missed just 21 games over the last eight seasons, and the team is 8-8-5 in those contests.
Here’s a projection of what the Bruins’ defensive pairings could look like without their leader. Remember, Kevan Miller already is out of the lineup indefinitely with an upper body injury.
Dennis Seidenberg-Dougie Hamilton
Torey Krug-Adam McQuaid
Matt Bartkowski-Zach Trotman/Joe Morrow
Seidenberg and Hamilton played together a decent amount Thursday after Chara left. It’s the best pairing the Bruins can put together at this point. Seidenberg missed most of 2013-14 after major knee surgery and got off to a slow start this season, but he’s steadily improving. The German D-man will need to play the shutdown role without Chara.
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After the Seidenberg-Hamilton duo, it gets a little scary. Krug is fantastic offensively, but he’s not normally used in a lot of defensive situations (starts more than 65 percent of his even-strength shifts in the attacking zone). McQuaid has been a bright spot this season, but his recent injury history should make the team wary about playing him too many minutes. Bartkowski has been one of the team’s worst players (minus-3, zero shots) and had another bad game versus the Islanders.
Perhaps the most important player for the Bruins in Chara’s absence will be goaltender Tuukka Rask. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner arguably is the best goalie in the league, but he’s struggled to start the 2014-15 campaign with a 3-3-0 record and a less-than-stellar 2.91 goals against average and a .880 save percentage.
Rask must return to an elite level for Boston to survive without Chara. Luckily, its upcoming schedule is a favorable one. Eight of the Bruins’ next 10 opponents missed the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, including matchups against the Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes.
The Bruins still could make the playoffs without Chara because the Eastern Conference is so weak compared to the West. With that said, winning the Stanley Cup without Chara is an impossible task. He’s that important to the team’s success in all three zones.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images