Saturday, January 09, 2021

Washington Capitals 2020-2021 Previews -- Defensemen: Zdeno Chara

Zdeno Chara

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
-- Dylan Thomas

Bet you didn’t see that coming.  Who would have thought Zdeno Chara would be wearing Capitals red, white, and blue this season?  Yes, his career is in its final act.  Yes, his production has diminished steadily over the last half-dozen seasons.  Yes, the Boston Bruins were going younger and did not appear to have a place for their long-time captain.  But Caps fans might have looked at Chara and the story of where he would or would not go as a momentary distraction from getting ready to root for their own team.  Few of those fans might have thought, “hmm, Chara as a Capital.”

But let us look at this with clear eyes.  The 2020-2021 version of Chara is still an intimidating physical presence, but he is not the 2010-2011 Chara who skated to a Stanley Cup with Boston.  For the record, he was 14-30-44 and a league-leading plus-33 for the Bruins in that Stanley Cup season.  If he posts half the goals, assists, and points for the Caps on an 82-game basis that he did in 2010-2011, folks would be right to be thankful and call it a day.

Truth is, he is not likely to get those half-loaves of production.  He was 5-9-14 in each of the past two seasons in Boston, has had one double-digit goal scoring season in the last six (10 in 75 games in 2016-107), and has more than 30 points once in the last six seasons (37 in 2015-2016).  And while his plus-minus rating has been impressive, increasing over the last five seasons (an aggregate of plus-100, second-best in the league to Victor Hedman’s plus-107), he played for a solid, deep, and talented team in the Bruins, too, which could have done much to explain his rating.

Odd Chara Fact… Most fans might have known this, or at least suspected it, but Zdeno Chara is the tallest player in league history (6’9”).

Odd Chara Fact II… It would surprise few that Chara is a top-five scorer among defensemen in Bruins history (481 points, third behind Ray Bourque (1,506) and Bobby Orr (888)), but it might surprise more than a few that 15 years since his last season with the Ottawa Senators, he remains the fourth-leading point getter among defensemen in Ottawa history (146 points).

Odd Chara Fact III… He might not score goals as often as he did earlier in his career, but over the last three seasons, seven of his 17 goals scored were game-winners.

Fearless’ Take…

With as much churn as there has been in the Caps’ defense going into this season, and with the return of Michal Kempny on an uncertain schedule, Zdeno Chara’s presence in Washington might have little to do with numbers in a direct way.  In its own fashion, Chara arriving in Washington could serve to stabilize the pairs and calm an uncertain situation (especially given the short calendar) that Kempny’s arrival did in Washington when he arrived late in the 2017-2018 season.  That worked out well; hopefully things will end in same way.

Cheerless’ Take…

True, numbers aren’t everything, cuz, but boy his have kind of fallen off a cliff the last few seasons.  Five goals last season and the season before?  He didn’t have that few since 2000-2001, when he was with the (hold on, let me check…) the Islanders, when he had two goals in 82 games.  Nine assists last season?  Yup, you’d have to go back to that 2000-2001 season to find one when he had fewer (seven).  And his ice time last year (22:01 per game) was the lowest it has been since 1998-1999 (18:54 in 59 games with the Islanders).  Even if he gets third pair minutes with the Caps, has his game deteriorated too much?

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021:

  • 1,600 career games played (he currently has 1,53)
  • 2,000 career penalty minutes (1,956)
  • Needs 12 games played to pass Nicklas Lidstrom (1,564) for fifth-place all time
  • Needs nine minor penalties to pass Paul Coffey (676) for tenth-place all time

The Big Question… Just how much can Zdeno Chara have left at age 43?

Only four defensemen in NHL history have played in the league having passed their 43rd birthday – Chris Chelios (five season), Tim Horton (two seasons), Doug Harvey, and Lester Patrick (who played only one game at that age).  It argues for tempering expectations when it comes to Zdeno Chara as a Capital.  He is a surefire hall of famer, but that is not going to be the player the Capitals will be sending out on the ice.  Which is not to say he has nothing left in the tank.  Chara is legendary for keeping himself in peak physical condition.  And a player with more than 1,700 regular and postseason games in his career has filed away a lot of information and experience that will enable him to deal with any conceivable situation on the ice.

Chara’s value might be more difficult to quantify than most.  It is not likely he will post impressive numbers, but his tank of experience and example are registering something close to “full.”  How this can be leveraged by the coaching staff will be one of the things to watch with Zdeno Chara this season.

In the end…

Babe Ruth is forever remembered as a New York Yankee, not as a Boston Brave.  Joe Montana will always wear the San Francisco 49er jersey in fans’ minds, not that of the Kansas City Chiefs.  And Washington fans have their own parallel – Michael Jordan is a Chicago Bull, not a Washington Wizard.  Zdeno Chara is not quite of the stature in hockey that the other three are in their respective sports, but still, he will be remembered as a Boston Bruin far longer than he might be as a Washington Capital.

The Capitals have, however, had reasonably good recent success with players destined for the hall of fame who made Washington a late stop in their NHL journey.  Adam Oates, who came to Washington at age 34, comes to mind.  In six seasons with the Caps, he posted 363 points in 387 games.  Sergei Fedorov is another member of that club, a player who arrived in Washington at age 38 and put up 46 points in 70 games in two seasons to close his career.  Whether Zdeno Chara can have similar success in Washington will go a long way to determining just how deep the Caps can go in pursuit of another Stanley Cup.

Projection: 50 games, 4-14-18, plus-2

Photo: Geoff Burke/US Presswire