On Zdeno Chara signing with the Capitals

Zdeno Chara returns for his tenth season as the captain of the Boston Bruins (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

As 2020 came to a merciful end, (many) Boston Bruins fans were greeted with one more bit of unwelcome news this week as captain Zdeno Chara’s 14-season run with the team came to an end with news he accepted a one-year offer from the Washington Capitals at age 43.

It seems both unimaginable and inevitable that the greatest free agent signing in team history would end in a whimper the way it did with a sudden announcement that after months of little to no movement on the renewal of a contract that most supporters felt was sure to happen. Like former Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield at the end of his major league career, it appeared as if the team and player had an unofficial deal to stay in Boston until both agreed that Chara’s playing days were over.

Clearly, that was not the case, as initial news brought anger and disbelief, especially when the base salary of $795,000 for the new season to exchange the black and gold for red, white and blue, came out. Chara’s deal calls for performance bonuses that would bring his total compensation to a $1.5 million AAV (per CapFriendly.com), but it was understandable that most fans would think it ridiculous that the Bruins weren’t willing to find the money to re-sign their captain, a player who had inked four separate contracts in Boston since he first came to town at age 29 in 2006.

However, as things are often the case with Hall of Fame-caliber players, and let’s be clear- four years after Chara calls it a career, whether in 2021 or later, he will be enshrined in Toronto- the truth of the matter is rarely black and white.

As the news has settled and more has come out on the negotiations that took place between Boston and Chara, both have said complimentary things and it appears that the following are both true:

  1. The Bruins wanted Chara back for a 15th season as captain, but with caveats.
  2. Chara was not willing to return to the team he cemented his legendary status with in a reduced role.

The purpose of this post is not to defend the organization for what did or didn’t happen to facilitate an icon’s departure, but to add context and provide food for thought to those fair-minded observers who are interested in what might have happened and why the team and player took positions they did. We weren’t there, so while we have been given some information based on sources familiar with the negotiations, this is merely one view on what might have happened.

It is fair to be disappointed that Chara and the team his greatest collective and individual accomplishments happened with couldn’t find a way to keep him until age 44 or when he finally calls it a stellar career. It is also fair to be okay with the realization that Chara is no longer the player he was and that his lack of mobility and inability to play in all situations like he once did means that the organization had to make a tough choice about answering the player’s questions about how he would be employed should he sign a fifth contract and third one-year extension since 2018.

The biggest challenge the Bruins face right now is with expectations for 2021. The team is coming off of a President’s Trophy as top regular season club in 2019-20 until COVID-19 forced the campaign’s pause in March. Prior to that, they took the St. Louis Blues to a seventh game of what would have been a second Stanley Cup championship team under Chara’s captaincy out of three trips to the final series. Given Torey Krug’s departure to those very Blues via free agency, fans have a right to be concerned about how the B’s power play and penalty kill special teams units will fare without two key anchors from a season ago.

From this view in the saddle, the issue so much isn’t Chara’s departure due to a fundamental disagreement between player and team over usage going forward and how to better manage the development other players in the organization, but more of a realization that without Chara and Krug, the Boston defense as a unit is almost certain to take steps backwards in 2021. In a few short months, we’ve gone from a team many thought might win a championship after the COVID pause resumed, to one that is on the outside looking in right now and in the immediate future.

Even if one or more of Matt Grzelcyk, Jakub Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen, Jeremy Lauzon and even Jack Ahcan were all primed to step in and fill those roles vacated by Chara and Krug with much more certainty than what we’re currently dealing with, there would still be questions about their basic experience and ability to replicate the x-factor that such battle-tested veterans provided Boston over the last 5-7 years. That, in our view, is what is really at the heart of the negativity surrounding Chara’s departure. More than anything else, it’s a harbinger of darker times and a window that has essentially closed after the team watched other teams around the league get better while Boston’s biggest name addition in the offseason was complementary forward Craig Smith.

Boston lost the opportunity for a second championship in three years when they dropped a six-game series to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013, the dawn of Krug’s era as a PP staple in Boston, while Chara was still at the height of his two-way productivity as an all-situations stalwart. The B’s followed up that disappointment with a President’s Trophy in 2014, then lost in the second round of the playoffs to their hated rival Montreal Canadiens and subsequently missed the playoffs for two years before a renaissance largely sparked by Patrice Bergeron’s continued excellence, plus the emergence of Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak as offensive forces from 2017-20 brought the team back into contention. Charlie McAvoy is the heir apparent on defense as potentially the next top/franchise cornerstone defenseman in Boston.

And it is right for those who see the parallels between the B’s teams from 2013-14 and 2019-20 to point out that by allowing Chara to leave like this, things are setting up for another precipitous fall like the one we witnessed in 2015 and 2016.

Five years hence, the 2015 draft was a major missed opportunity. Though all three first-round picks are still in the fold and Jake DeBrusk has become a solid complementary scorer with the B’s, the chance to draft three driver-types didn’t happen, and has exacerbated the concerns surrounding the club’s current fortunes. We’ll not open that can of worms in the Chara piece at present, as the 2015 draft’s failings deserves its own treatment at some point soon, but the reality is- as the 2021 season dawns, the B’s have far more question marks on the left side of their defense corps than answers at present, and that is at the heart of the angst surrounding Chara’s exit.

Also at issue is the captain’s legacy and how things should have ended in Boston. One can certainly argue that he deserved better- a final curtain call in Boston and the ability to close out a two-plus decade career in the NHL that saw him endure as the league’s tallest player who evolved into a curious project into a dominant, Norris Trophy-winning, franchise icon who helped the Bruins organization to its first championship in nearly four decades, the first such accomplishment since Bobby Orr manned the Boston blue line. On several levels, it doesn’t make sense that the Bruins as a whole- whether you’re talking Cam Neely, Don Sweeney, Bruce Cassidy or even ownership as a collective brain trust, wouldn’t see the black clouds gathering on the horizon and know that they would take a major PR hit by not closing the deal to keep Chara in the fold.

At the same time, we have to admire the team’s courage for looking at the situation and deciding that simply offering him a new contract to maintain a status quo in Boston and turn 44 in the midst of the new season without addressing what has been a declining return on investment, was a bridge too far. Right or wrong, what is always lost on fans and media members, no matter how well sourced they may be, are the team dynamics of what goes on behind the scenes. They are not sitting in the meetings that take place when leaders lay out the depth chart and talk through the myriad scenarios of player usage combined with future financial constraints and contract negotiations. No one is privy to the discussions that talk about who the team is likely to lose when the NHL’s newest expansion club, the Seattle Kraken gets to leverage the changed rules to build a far more competitive roster than all of the other NHL’s expansion clubs in history. We all watched the Las Vegas Golden Knights create a blue print for in 2017, and the Bruins are trying to manage the challenge of not losing a driver-type of player to Seattle because they didn’t know what they had in order to make the right decision when it comes to whom they protect and those who get exposed in the impending expansion draft.

Sound like excuse making? Perhaps. But, ask yourselves this: If Chara returned and continued to log key minutes in the rotation and on the PK and another player further down the depth chart departed either to Seattle or other club only to blossom as a top performer there, many of those same people unhappy about Chara’s departure would also savage the Bruins organization for allowing an aging veteran to hang on for so long and hindering the development of others in the system or at least- camouflaging their potential and preventing the B’s from making an informed decision on who to protect.

Building a winning team is a never-ending master-level jigsaw puzzle. It isn’t just about acquiring talent and skill but supplementing those stars with the right kinds of players who can come together and embrace a team’s structure and organizational values. Some fans might scoff at this quaint notion of the herculean task managers face at all meaningful levels, but the reality is- that’s why they’re fans. They might build a successful Twitter following, but they’ll never be part of a high-level team, nor will they understand the constant challenges of juggling the many dynamics needed to build a winning, championship team. For them, it is more about pointing fingers and playing to a crowd of like-minded toadies and sycophants in a social media echo chamber than thoughtful analysis and a fair-minded approach to what is going on. Like barking, clapping seals, they speak in absolutes they know nothing about. And that’s fine- it’s the world we live in, but it is also completely fair to point this out and call out some of the mind-numbing nitwits who have the loudest voices on matters they haven’t earned a shred of credibility to comment on.

What does seem to be playing out is this: the Bruins have put themselves at a disadvantage by selling off draft capital to remain competitive for playoff runs in recent years, but the time has come for them to start accruing picks and looking at building a better system. Prospects like Jack Studnicka and Mason Lohrei show significant promise as two of Boston’s most likely candidates to be drivers one day, but unlike many other teams around the league, Boston lacks the volume/depth of star power and pure skill/dynamic upside players in other systems who are on their way to the NHL in the next 3-5 years. The B’s have long done pretty well with savvy undrafted free agent signings to help bolster their draft misses and disappointments, but this puts tremendous pressure on the organization to find the rare players everyone else has not identified, and causes the GM to expend assets and capital on talent acquisition via trades and the bloated unrestricted free agent market.

Losing Chara to Washington stings, because he had so many amazing moments as a Bruin and was in many cases, the face of a franchise that had fallen on hard times when he was signed, and played a major role in a resurrection that ended with the Stanley Cup five years later and a near 10+ year run of sustained success. Just about everyone who rooted heart and soul for the Boston Bruins should be sad to see him go and appreciate what he did when he was here. But nothing, especially those lives spent in professional sports, lasts forever. Et tu, Tom Brady?

Those who are upset that Chara and the current core didn’t bring more championships to Boston have a point. Those who feel that Chara should have been treated a little differently so that he wouldn’t have felt the need to take his game elsewhere in the twilight of a tremendous career are also right. But so are those who understand that the business side of hockey sometimes means that you lose these battles and teams have to make highly unpalatable decisions because they truly feel that those are in the best interest of the club. No one has a crystal ball…sometimes, those tough decisions pay off and sometimes they don’t. But the Bruins felt that keeping the status quo for another year without addressing it with the captain was the wrong thing to do. Even if they had agreed to give him the role he was used to, would fans have demanded a change if he was unable to keep up, unable to make the plays needed for success at age 44? It’s easy to say that the team *should* have done what it took to keep him, but remember- Chara himself had a choice to stay and perform in the role that the team had for him. He chose a different path. It’s not just on the Bruins for that.

In the end, it may be precisely true that the Bruins take steps backwards in 2021. It seems a certainty in fact, that they will. But even if that happens, it does not stand as proof that the leadership lacks a plan or vision. Sweeney and his staff dug the club out of the malaise of 2015 and 2016 and built a squad that was three periods away from a championship just 1.5 years ago. History is never kind to those who are unable to close it out and attain ultimate victory, and those with an agenda to do so will almost certainly continue to overlook that or harp on the failures of the 2015 draft (without ever citing the multiple successes of 2014), but just because you feel strongly about something does not make it true.

We wish Zdeno Chara the best as he embarks on what could be one last hurrah with a new team. It’s a shame that he couldn’t finish his storied run in Boston, but like Ray Bourque before him, the show will go on.

Thanks for everything, Big Z- You were everything we thought you would be when you signed 14+ years ago…and then some.

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