BOSTON (CBS) – He answers questions about his new role like some movie assassin explaining why he kills people.
When Zdeno Chara is asked about playing in front of the net during the Bruins’ power plays, he speak in typical monotone fashion and doesn’t even hint at a smile as he explains that he’s just doing his job. And when prompted, he reveals that he is finding at least a little joy in his new role, which paid off for Boston with two goals (one he scored, one he screened the goaltender on for Torey Krug) in the Bruins’ 4-1 win against Detroit on Saturday night.
“I think that it’s always been the basic of my game. Just work hard and while you’re doing that you might as well enjoy that,” the Bruins’ towering captain said after the Bruins improved to 2-0-0. “It’s not always easy but that’s just hard work. You have to do whatever you can to help the power play succeed.”
The Bruins’ inept power-play performances of the past couple seasons had people from several corners of the hockey world clamoring for a switch of the 6-foot-9 Chara from the point to the slot. It was a weapon coach Claude Julien had utilized a few times now and then, including during the early portions of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, but was reluctant to use full time. Now, as the coach explained, with players like Krug and Dougie Hamilton available to fill in for Chara at the point, putting the Norris Trophy winning defenseman at a forward position is worth a longer try.
However, the Bruins have to be careful not to lose sight of the long-term implications of such a maneuver and have to keep Chara’s well-being (which is in turn in their absolute best interest) in mind before making the blueliner into a full-time power-play forward.
In addition to maybe helping the Bruins, who are 2-for-7 on the power play through two games, to maybe finish in the top half of the league in efficiency for the first time since 2010-11, Julien sees several other benefits for the team and the 36-year-old Chara.
“And when we have to break out, all he does is he works his way back to the offensive blue line and like we said before – lot less skating for him,” said Julien, who also noted that Chara was leery but willing when the idea was first broached during training camp. “Probably, it’ll manage his ice or as far as his efforts are concerned, he can maybe save a little bit of effort from going and getting the puck back all the time.
Less skating could make Chara’s 25 to 30 minutes of ice time less taxing. And there’s no doubt he’s going to win 99 percent of the puck battles. But one has to wonder what type of ill effects playing in front of the net will have on Chara. Tampa Bay and Detroit sort of backed off the big man. Undoubtedly other teams are going to go at him. Typically, that’s the only chance teams have of wearing down Chara in the corners and now they’ll try the same tactic in the slot.
We all know about Chara’s unique fitness and strength and his devotion to a stringent regimen to stay young beyond his years. But, contrary to popular belief, he’s not a feeling-less droid. Against some teams, he’s going to take the type of beating he’s never faced before as a professional. There are going to be cross checks to the back and slashes to the legs (from skaters and goalies) – some of which will be called for penalties and some that will go unseen. Chara’s going to have maintain a high threshold for pain and a thick skin to avoid retaliation penalties.
Over the course of the long season, it’ll be best for Julien and his staff to enact the Chara-in-front plan when it’s most needed. Against softer teams like Tampa Bay and Detroit, it’s fine to plant the monster at the top of the crease. When the physicality amps up, say against Philadelphia, or the opposing goaltender is known for some extracurricular stick work, it might be best to slide Chara back to his more natural position and let the likes of Milan Lucic absorb the shots.
Chara’s value as a defenseman is what’s most important to the Bruins, and it’s up to them to preserve him for that role and not get hypnotized by power-play success to the point that they risk Chara’s health.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.
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