TAMPA – It’s no crazy coincidence that Zdeno Chara is averaging the lowest ice time during his time in Boston.
There was very clearly a goal for the Bruins this season to conserve the legs of their 36-year-old shutdown defenseman a bit more efficiently this season. Chara is averaging less than 24 minutes of ice time per game for the first time in more than 10 years dating back to his first season with the Ottawa Senators in 2001-02.
He averaged 24:56 of ice time per game during last year’s shortened season with the Bruins.
Much of it is clearly with an eye toward keeping Chara’s legs and wits fresh for this season’s playoff run after a heavy regular season burden left him appearing heavy-legged during the Stanley Cup Finals against the Chicago Blackhawks. The B’s captain ended up averaging a whopping 29:32 of ice time in those 22 playoff games, and that number went through the roof when the Bruins were forced to increase his minutes when injuries pushes young defensemen into the lineup.
A hip pointer issue didn’t help either, and Chara went a minus-6 in the final three losses to Chicago that ultimately led to Boston’s elimination in Game 6. So the Bruins went into this year with a season-long goal of keeping Chara fresh. It remains to be seen if they’d actually scratch him for a game or two during the year, but it’s clear the first order of business was decreasing his minutes workload.
“It’s solely by design,” said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, when asked about the movement to lighten Chara’s workload this season. “He’s certainly capable of playing 26, 27, 28 minutes. We’d rather have that in the chamber for later on, so we’ve been doing that by design.”
Even the move to put Chara down low on the power play has a rest benefit, as he’s no longer the “stretch” defenseman on the point retrieving the puck when it’s been cleared to the opposite end of the ice. Every little bit certainly helps with a big body like Chara that requires plenty of energy to get moving in the first place.
So the B’s captain knows there’s a long view benefit to a little more rest in the regular season, especially coming off a quick two month turnaround from last season.
“I’m not really a guy that’s going to be looking at exactly how many minutes I’m playing in a game. I’m just trying to play the best I can when I’m out there. Some nights it will be more, and some nights it will be less…it could depend on special teams and matchups,” said Chara. “It is one of those things that I have to be smart about. It’s not right to say that you’re looking too, too far ahead. But you don’t want to be extending shifts or chasing some kind of number as far as ice time goes.
“You play as you are, and you include everybody. You can’t rely on four guys for 82 games, and then get to the playoffs and you’re being overloaded with overtimes and everything else. We have a really good group of D-men, and everybody has to be included in sharing the load of minutes. I’m totally comfortable with whatever the coaches decide to do with my minutes. I’ll just play the best I can when I’m out there.”
Chara has averaged 23:56 of ice time in six games with three points (1 goal, 2 assists) along with a minus-2 rating in a decent, if not spectacular, beginning to his 16th NHL season.
The 6-foot-9 B’s captain has already been on the ice for a number of goals against, and was one of the players at fault for Florida’s game-tying goal in the third period Thursday night against the Panthers. Chara gave up on a play thinking that Tuukka Rask had covered up the puck, and allowed Jesse Winchester to bull right through him to bat in the tying score at the left post.
Plays like that require the defensive tightening that Chara feels the Bruins could still improve upon despite ranking No. 2 in the NHL with 1.67 goals allowed per game. It might be optimistic to think the team can achieve defensive greatness while conserving Chara and introducing younger elements to the Boston defensemen corps, but that is Boston’s mission for the season.
And they’ve chosen to accept it.