If 2020 hadn’t already thrown us enough curve balls, Zdeno Chara has signed to patrol the blueline for the Washington Capitals for the 2020-21 season. There is no truth to the rumor that the deal was held up while the Capitals were in negotiations to get an exemption from the Height of Buildings Act that prohibits skyscrapers from being erected in D.C.
It was shocking news indeed, particularly since most observers thought Chara would either return to the Boston Bruins or retire. But it’s pretty clear that, even at the age of 43 – he’ll turn 44 midway through the season – Chara believes he still has something to give. And he’s probably right. And it wasn’t that the Bruins didn’t agree with him. This move appears to have had everything to do with roles and responsibilities. The Bruins wanted to see what they have with their young left-shot defensemen and that would have meant a reduced role for one of the greatest leaders the Bruins franchise has ever seen.
Like the Bruins, the Capitals are trying to win another Stanley Cup with a group for whom time appears to be running out. With Craig Anderson on a PTO and possibly the backup goalie, the Capitals have also added Justin Schultz to their veteran group. Going with a cast of veterans worked out pretty well for the Dallas Stars last season. Perhaps it will do the same for Washington.
So if you subscribe to the theory that Chara left Boston because he still wants to be an everyday player, then it would stand to reason that the Capitals likely gave him some assurances that he would be that, despite the fact that it’s a pretty crowded blueline at the moment. The John Carlson-Brenden Dillon is set as the first pairing, with Shultz and Dmitry Orlov likely making up the No. 2 tandem. The Capitals also acquired Trevor van Riemsdyk as a free agent over the summer and it probably makes sense that he and Chara would make up the third pairing.
It will likely be something of an adjustment for Chara, who remarkably played 21 minutes a game last season. But if he can take a regular shift and continue to be one of the elite penalty-killing defensemen in the league – as well as occasionally rub out an opposing forward – this could be a great move for the Capitals. He is no longer the towering force he was in his prime, but Chara is still a very good defensive presence and a really difficult opponent. There will be lines that will not enjoy matching up against the Capitals when Chara is on the blueline and both Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin are on the ice.
As far as Chara’s legacy in Boston is concerned, it is secure and without reproach. As one of the best free-agent signings in NHL history when he joined the Bruins in 2006, Chara became one of the greatest defensemen of his generation. In his 14-year career, he captained the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup triumph in 40 years, winning a Norris Trophy and being named a first-team all-star twice and a second-teamer three times along the way. Much of the culture that has been established with the Bruins over the past decade can be traced directly to Chara’s influence. His toughness and work ethic are legendary, as evidenced by him playing Games 5, 6 and 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup final after breaking his jaw.
This past fall, THN produced a special issue ranking the top 100 NHL defensemen of all-time and Chara was No. 23 on the list. That puts him behind the likes of Bobby Orr, Eddie Shore and Ray Bourque – who finished at No. 1, 4 and 5 on the list – and the No. 11-ranked Dit Clapper in Bruins history. (Brad Park, who spent eight outstanding seasons and was twice a first-team all-star with the Bruins, was 13th on the list.)
So it’s safe to say that Chara is the fifth-best defenseman in the history of a franchise that has had an embarrassment of riches at that position, which is quite an achievement. Chris Chelios and Scott Stevens are the only defensemen in NHL history to play at least 1,600 games while recording 700 points and 2,000 penalty minutes. Chara is 47 games, 44 points and 44 PIM from joining them in that group. The Hall of Fame most definitely awaits.
Time will tell whether the Bruins made a mistake in letting Chara go. Their leadership group, led by captain-in-waiting Patrice Bergeron, is already very strong. But not only have they lost Chara, they’ll also be without Torey Krug, with Brad Marchand and David Krejci expected to miss time. They already have Matt Grzelcyk, John Moore and Jeremy Lauzon on the left side, with Jakub Zboril and Urho Vaakanainen having spent the past couple of seasons in the minors. It should not take long for them to find out, however. With the Capitals and Bruins playing in the East Division, the teams will meet eight times (not including playoffs) this season.