On his first full day as a Washington Capital, future Hall of Famer Zdeno Chara made it very clear that he has no intention of going quietly into the night. It’s to be determined whether hockey’s tallest freestanding structure will continue to log 20 minutes a game and kill penalties under new coach Peter Laviolette, but Chara still views himself as a guy who can play an important on-ice role at the with his 44th birthday 2-1/2 months away.
If that were not the case, he would have never left the Boston Bruins in the first place. In a news conference Thursday afternoon, Chara said all the right things about the Bruins, reiterating that he respects their decision and that he believes GM Don Sweeney negotiated in good faith and communicated his thoughts to Chara clearly and openly. All of which is 100 percent true. But also know this about Chara. He is an intensely proud man. And he would like nothing better than to prove to the Bruins that they were wrong about him. Fortunately, he’ll have eight times in the regular season to do just that.
This was never about money because nobody changes teams and uproots his life for a one-year deal worth $795,000. In fact, the Bruins offered him a contract quite some time ago. As the conversations progressed, it became clear to Chara that he would not be an everyday player with the Bruins, probably not starting the season in the lineup and not playing in back-to-back games, of which the Bruins have seven in this compressed season. Chara described his prospective role as a “reserve type of player,” and that was something he was not prepared to accept.
“I just felt that what was presented to me and what conditions were kind of attached to it…I just felt that I had more to offer,” Chara said. “I respected (the Bruins’) decisions and wish them the best, but I just felt that I can still play regularly and play the games. I have no issues with them going in a different direction. I just feel that at this point in my career, it’s better if I continue to play.”
For his part, Sweeney said Thursday that he could not make Chara, “a categorical promise,” that he would have the same role he has had in the past for the Bruins. It appears that the Capitals did not do that either since Chara said nothing is guaranteed in Washington as far as ice time and role are concerned, but he likely wouldn’t have signed there if the Capitals weren’t at least prepared to give him an opportunity to prove that he belongs among their top six defensemen.
As it stands, the first pairing of John Carlson and Brenden Dillon remains intact. And it looks as though the second pair will consist of fellow newcomer Justin Schultz and Dmitry Orlov. With Michal Kempny out until at least early April and perhaps the entire season with surgery on his Achilles tendon, that leaves Chara to compete with the likes of Jonas Siegenthaler and Martin Fehervary on the left side of the third pairing, likely playing alongside newcomer Trevor van Riemsdyk.
“We were in that pause when we usually start the season and I think that time was a time where I decided that if I start skating and going back to training, I will be quickly honest with myself in case there is some sort of questioning or hesitation about going on the ice and doing all my routines,” Chara said. “And that never appeared. I still have a lot of fun when I go on the ice. I love working out. I love working hard. To me that was an indication I still have a lot of gas left and that I still want to go out there and do my thing.”
This was probably a very tough call for Sweeney and the Bruins. On one hand, you wonder why they would not have trusted the instincts of a player who has been their captain, their moral compass and such a dedicated player over the past couple of years. And if it turns out they were wrong about him, it will cost them. But Sweeney also knows as well as anyone that an NHL player simply cannot be trusted to be objective when it comes to what he can and can’t do, particularly in the latter part of his career. There are many times when the player is the last who is able to see that he can no longer compete.
Of course, there might be a sweet spot somewhere in the middle. Right up to last season, Chara was still logging 20-plus minutes a game in ice time and was just outside the top 10 in shorthanded time on ice per game at 3:11 – which, ironically, tied him with Siegenthaler in that category. It’s unlikely they’ll expect that much of him in Washington, but it’s probably comforting to know that he can step up and play big minutes if the Capitals require it. Chara’s off-season training regimen, which is legendary, is key to that.
“That’s my motivation,” Chara said, “to prove that I can still play.”