Are the Boston Bruins actually contemplating not offering longtime team captain Zdeno Chara a new contract and saying goodbye to one of the greatest leaders to not only don the spoked B but also play in the NHL?
That’s suddenly becoming an elephant in the room bigger than the biggest player in the NHL, for a Bruins offseason that just recently began. Last week, Chara, who can become an unrestricted free agent on October 9, made it clear he wants to keep playing for the team he has captained for the last 14 seasons and helped lead to their first Stanley Cup in 39 years in 2010-11. However, there’s been at best, mixed signals from Bruins brass this week on if they will give the future hall of famer that option to keep playing for the Bruins. That also seems to be the feel around the NHL as teams gather their pro scouting staffs for what promises to be one of the unique and potentially fastest offseasons ever.
“I’m hearing mixed reactions to that,” an NHL source told Boston Hockey Now early Thursday evening when asked if he had heard the Bruins aren’t set on bringing the 43-year-old Chara back for another whirl as Bruins Captain.
This came only hours after Bruins President Cam Neely had this to say about Chara’s future with the Bruins.
“We have to look at where we’re headed, what we need, and what role Zdeno can play for us,” Bruins President Cam Neely said Thursday afternoon.
Prior to that Neely, just as General Manager Don Sweeney did on Wednesday also both spoke more like NBC play-by-play legend ‘Doc’ Emerick did when he gave what sounded like a eulogy to Chara’s career with the Bruins and potentially in the NHL following the Bruins 3-2 double overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 that eliminated them from the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Well from day one since he came here, he brought a lot of stability back on the blue line, in the locker room, the leadership goes without saying,” Neely said . “He’s mentored a lot of defenseman over the years and he’s continued to do that. He has a great quality about him, his work ethic is second to none, and I think it’s important for our players over the years to see what it takes to play in the National Hockey League with someone that really had to get to a point to be one of the top defensemen in the League, where when he first broke in no one was thinking that. No one was thinking he’s going to play until he’s 43 or 44 so that’s a testament to his commitment and desire.”
Sweeney heaped similar praise on Chara, who just finished a one-year contract that carried a $2 million salary cap hit and earned Chara $1.7 million in bonuses. Chara would seemingly understand he might have to accept less than that on another one-year deal with the Bruins but like Neely, Sweeney wouldn’t say if the Bruins are willing to even offer him a contract. Yes, Sweeney never directly talks contract negotiations with the media but there was a more than usual non-committal tone on a player he’s always indicated would be back as his contracts wound down in the past.
“I saw the reports,” Sweeney said Wednesday acknowledging Chara’s desire to play another season for the Bruins. “We are scheduling zoom meetings with all of our players in the coming weeks. We’ve taken a little bit of time to step away from being away as a group to allow people to catch their breath. We started pro meetings, met with coaches this week, internal discussions organizationally, so I think we’re going to check some boxes that we need to and then we’re going to start to address on an individual player level.
And I respect Zdeno’s comments, he always been an iconic player for us, an important player for us, and we’re going to explore opportunities with he and other players that have either UFA or RFA status and hopefully check off the boxes like we have with several other players and continue to move forward and improve our hockey club and addressing Zdeno’s contractual situation is part of that process.”
That is far from the optimism Zdeno Chara expressed about returning in his Zoom call with the media last week in the comments Sweeney referenced.
“I feel strong physically. I’m positive and I believe I can still play this game and contribute to the team. I want to stay in Boston. I want to be a Boston Bruin,” Chara said. “I want to continue to lead by example and share my experiences with the younger players. That hasn’t changed. I’m committed. We’ll see what’s going to happen next.”
Neely praised Chara for accepting a decreased role in the Bruins’ system the last few years as the Bruins filtered in new defensemen such as Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, Brandon Carlo and Connor Clifton and as Torey Krug became the powerplay quarterback.
“He’s a proud man,” Neely said of Chara who finished the playoffs with two assists in 13 games after racking up five goals and nine assists in 68 regular season games. “When he was taken off the first unit of the power play, I don’t think he was happy about it but he understood it was probably best for the team. And then he wasn’t on the second unit, I don’t think he was happy about that. But that’s how proud he is.
What I do know, that he wants to be the best defender out there. He’s unbelievable on the penalty kill still. It’s something that he takes a lot of pride in. As any athlete that has all kinds of pride like Zdeno, it’s tough at times to have change.”
The very real question now though, could be how would Zdeno Chara accept the fact that he may not have a role on a Bruins blue line that saw five more defensemen make more than him this past season? Or are the Bruins really ready to make that change and move on from a defenseman, that as Neely pointed out is still steady defensively?
That’s not a conversation that Sweeney, Neely, or even Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy obviously want to have with 6’9, 250-pound Chara who has been nothing short of a loyal soldier to the franchise and a coach’s dream to Claude Julien and the reigning Jack Adams Award winner. The reality though is that for the first time ever, they really seem to be contemplating having it very soon.
Should the Bruins thank and wish Zdeno Chara good luck in the next month, an even bigger question will become is Zdeno Chara ready for the biggest career change he’s experienced since he left the Ottawa Senators and signed a five-year, $37.5 million contract with the Bruins on July 1, 2006 and sign with another team? Or will he retire?