There comes a time when it’s the end of the road for every Boston Bruins player.
Sometimes it happens all too soon and sometimes it spans the entirety of a hockey career. But nothing lasts forever in the NHL even when it’s wrapped in Black and Gold.
It happened regrettably when the greatest player in NHL history, Bobby Orr, finished out his career with the Chicago Blackhawks after winning two Stanley Cups in Boston. It happened when Phil Esposito was traded to the New York Rangers effectively ending a special era for the Black and Gold when they were the greatest show on ice.
It happened prematurely with Hall of Famer Cam Neely when leg injuries effectively ended his brilliantly brutal B’s career when he was just 30 years old. The Milt Schmidts of the world are rare where the same person becomes player, head coach, executive and everything under the sun during a lifetime of Hall of Fame service to the same NHL organization.
Patrice Bergeron may end up being that kind of “True Bruin” person when it’s all said and done, and that’s why there is a special, deserved kind of affection for No. 37 among the fan base as the longest-tenured athlete in Boston at this point.
This is all a prelude to wondering if the end has indeed come for Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. This isn’t to say that the 43-year-old should retire if he wants to keep on playing because that’s such a personal decision for each and every individual player.
Clearly there are teams like the New York Rangers that would be interested in Chara’s services as a free agent, as my partner-in-crime Jimmy Murphy recently reported.
But it feels like the Bruins have been attempting an amicable breakup with their longtime captain through this entire, strange offseason. Certainly, their actions speak to a team attempting to move on as they signed former first round pick Jakub Zboril to a two-year, one-way contract and re-signed Kevan Miller to a one-year deal back at the opening of free agency.
And they pursued Oliver Ekman-Larsson in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes as well, which really signals going in a different direction than the hard-nosed, punishing Chara.
The only way the Miller contract – for a player that hasn’t suited up in 18 months due to injuries — makes sense for the Bruins is if they signed the rugged, hard-hitting defensive warrior to fill the toughness void anticipated if/when Chara didn’t return for the 2021 season. For months it’s seemed that the Bruins have determined they are going with a youth movement on the back end. Part of that turnover is moving on from Chara and Torey Krug while determining what they have in former first round picks like Zboril and Urho Vaakanainen.
Bruce Cassidy has addressed the topic numerous times this offseason, and each time he’s sounded like a head coach not exactly expecting Chara to be back while talking about “the circle of life” in the NHL. Cassidy even mentioned youngster Jeremy Lauzon as a big, strong D-man that could potentially step up and replace some of the penalty kill work that’s become Chara’s stock in trade over the years.
“If ‘Zee’ ends up in another uniform, then we have to rely on these young guys,” Bruce Cassidy in an interview with NBC10’s Raul Martinez earlier this offseason. “I guess that’s the way I look at it. I look at it as a coach. You try to separate the personal side of it. You go to bat with these guys every day, it’s a privilege to coach them but then people change, there’s trades and then you move on and then you gotta worry about the next guy.
“I don’t want to sound impersonal but that’s the way a coach sometimes has to look at it. We gotta get the best out of the next guy that’s going into the lineup. So, we’ll see how it plays out. No matter what, ‘Zee’ has been a legend in a Bruins uniform, and you know that’s a tough one, very difficult one but we’ll see how it goes.”
Certainly, it would hurt the Boston Bruins in the short term if Chara is no longer playing for the Bruins. He’s a 6-foot-9 intimidator that keeps opponents from taking too many liberties against star players like David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and his value is still there on the penalty kill and in the defensive zone. Chara was a plus-26 last season even as he had arguably lost a step in a fast-paced NHL game that’s only getting faster every season, and there’s no replacing his experience, toughness or leadership qualities.
But he’s also 43 years old and it really looked in the Toronto bubble during the Stanley Cup playoffs (two points, a minus-4 and under 20 minutes of ice time per game in 13 games) that he was having trouble keeping pace.
It was noticeable enough that NBC Sports talking heads like Doc Emrick and Keith Jones (“He’s not ready for his Bruins career to end just yet”) were referencing Chara and retirement as the Bruins were eliminated in Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
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From a leadership standpoint, it feels like Patrice Bergeron is ready to step up and be the captain of the Boston Bruins while leading by example, work ethic and his growing willingness to be vocal with his leadership. There’s also little doubting the Bruins will be a faster, more streamlined back end with Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk leading in the puck-moving department, and Brandon Carlo already a premiere shutdown defenseman with just a few years in the league.
Perhaps both sides will decide that one more year makes sense for Chara in Boston, and they make it all work. After all, Chara’s agent Matt Keator told Boston Hockey Now a few weeks back that they were simply waiting on the format for this upcoming season before making any decisions. And the Bruins have roughly $3.6 million in cap space, which would be ample to sign Chara if the Bruins can avoid the contract bonus overages that put them in salary cap peril over the next two seasons.
Clearly it goes beyond X’s and O’s with Chara, and it’s a situation where management and ownership need to make sure it’s handled properly. The legend’s legacy with the Black and Gold is an important one that he’s carried with distinction, honor and class over the last 15 years. Nobody will ever forget Chara as the epitome of toughness playing through a broken jaw during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, or leading the 2011 B’s group to Stanley Cup glory. His legacy in both Boston, and around the NHL, is robust and complete.
But as time has gone on it’s felt like the writing has been on the wall with Chara and the Boston Bruins, and perhaps the end of the road had come for an iconic, Hall of Fame player and the team where he became a legend. Maybe, just maybe, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing for a Bruins team that clearly needed to make changes based on last summer’s playoffs.