FOXBORO, Mass. — Zdeno Chara might be the most difficult defenseman to play against in the NHL.
The Boston Bruins captain’s immense size, at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, is intimidating. His long reach frustrates skilled players. His strength makes him impossible to move from the net and able to launch devastating hits at the other end of the ice. The 38-year-old’s high hockey IQ allows him to make smart, quick decisions that many other players his size aren’t able to execute.
“His conditioning and his work ethic and commitment to trying to be the best he can possibly be. I’m not surprised he can continue to play and be dominant,” Sabres goalie and former Chara teammate Chad Johnson recently said. “He works so hard and (is) sort of the role model for (the Bruins) and their identity. It’s the hard work and dedication on and off the ice. He’s also a good person and a leader. He still brings it, still very passionate. … It’s just impressive, really.”
It’s surprising that Chara has won only one Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. No other blueliner forces head coaches to make as many substantial line changes to get his best forwards an easier matchup.
A lot has been made over the last season-and-a-half or so — many of it incorrectly — about how Chara might be slowing down and no longer is a No. 1 defenseman. It’s the kind of hot take that sports radio hosts perpetuate with few, if any, facts.
The truth is Chara’s enjoying another very good season. As the B’s prepare to face the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, Chara will be among the most important players if Boston is to maintain its perfect record in outdoor games.
For Chara, it all starts in the defensive zone, where he begins 40.7 percent of his 5-on-5 shifts (13th most among all NHL defensemen). The impressive part is he finishes 50.8 of those same shifts in the attacking zone. So, with Chara on the ice, the Bruins consistently transition from defense to offense at a high rate. That’s one of the marks of a good defenseman.
It doesn’t matter what situation in which those difficult zone starts are happening. Chara plays a lot of minutes at even strength and special teams.
What’s even more impressive is Chara is facing the opponents’ top lines on the large majority of his shifts. His Corsi Rel QoC — a stat that measures the quality of the competition a player faces — is 1.660. Just six defensemen have a better mark.
From an offensive standpoint, Chara still produces. He’s tied for the Bruins lead in scoring among defensemen with 19 points (five goals, 14 assists), which also places him in the top 20 in the league at his position.
Chara’s ability to drive puck possession remains impressive as well. The Bruins account for 50.43 percent of all even-strength shot attempts when Chara is on the ice. The only B’s defenseman with a higher mark is Colin Miller, but his zone starts are much easier than the captain’s.
The following player usage chart from War on Ice is a comparison between Chara and the top candidates for this season’s Norris Trophy. The goal is to be as close in the top left corner as possible with a large bubble. The darker the blue bubble, the better.
It shows Chara takes on the tough zone starts, plays against quality competition and drives possession relative to his teammates.
Will Chara win the Norris Trophy, or be named a finalist this season? Probably not. But is he still a legitimate No. 1 defenseman making a strong impact all over the ice?
Thumbnail photo via Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports Images