The transformation of the Boston Bruins from an underachieving organization prior to the 2004-05 lockout to a perennial Stanley Cup contender just a few seasons later wasn’t the result of one single transaction.
If one stands out, though, it’s the signing of Zdeno Chara on the opening day of free agency in July 2006 that signaled just how different things were about to become for the Black and Gold. After yet another cycle between contending and wandering around hopelessly and back again, Chara remains Boston’s captain 13 seasons later.
After winning his first -- and to date only -- Cup in 2011, Chara, 42, can become the oldest captain of a Stanley Cup champion should the Bruins finish the job against the St. Louis Blues. He can become the only European-born player to serve as captain for multiple Stanley Cup champions as well.
Chara is a lock for the Hockey Hall of Fame the minute he becomes eligible, but this could be his final chance to pad his resume even further when it comes to Cup accolades.
"You really better ask [Zdeno] this question as to whether or not this is his last chance," Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney said last week. "That’s not how he sees his own play, and good for him because I think it’s a driving force as to why he is the player he is at 42."
Chara isn’t quite the player he was in 2011, when the Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks in seven games to claim the franchise’s first title in 39 years, but he hasn’t necessarily had to be with the emergence of younger players on Boston’s blue line.
His defensive partner, Charlie McAvoy, was born about a month after Chara made his NHL debut with the New York Islanders in 1997. Boston’s first-round draft choice in 2016, McAvoy has assumed Chara’s role as the team’s de facto No. 1 defenseman. It was a greater cause for concern in the Eastern Conference final when McAvoy missed Game 1 vs. Carolina due to a suspension than it was when Chara was absent for Game 4, regardless of the status of the series at that point, and it would be again, too, if McAvoy were to miss a game in the Cup Final for whatever reason.
Chara averaged 0.23 points per game this season for the Bruins, his lowest total since any of the first four seasons of his career with the Islanders, while his average of 21:05 on ice was his lowest total since the 1998-99 season. This season marked the first time as a Bruin he didn’t lead the teams’ skaters in average time on ice.
None of this is a bad thing, given the presence of McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug to pick up the slack in the various departments Chara used to be able to do it all in.
Instead, Chara is aging as gracefully as any number of other Hall of Fame defenseman in NHL history, with more longevity to boot. Much of the credit belongs to Boston’s front office for building a promising young core of blue liners around Chara, but he’s helped out in his own way by taking team-friendly deals in each of the last two seasons.
Players like Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Paul Coffey, Denis Potvin, Larry Robinson and Scott Stevens were done before their 40th birthdays. Ray Bourque skated away as a Stanley Cup champion in 2001 just months after turning 40. Bobby Orr, due to injuries, was done at 30.
Chara’s only true contemporaries when it comes to being effective for multiple seasons after their 40th birthdays are Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom, teammates on the Detroit Red Wings in the 2000s.
Chara may not have ever had the scoring acumen of any of the players listed above -- his career-high 52 points in 2011-12 would be tied for Bourque’s 19th-best scoring output -- but it’s evident the Bruins have always been better with him on the ice than off. Since signing in Boston, Chara leads all NHL players in plus/minus with a plus-214 rating.
Lidstrom won his seventh Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman in his age-40 season, albeit with a minus-2 rating. Chelios was past his 40th birthday for each of Detroit’s Stanley Cup wins this century, becoming the oldest player to win a Cup at age 46 in 2008.
Chara recently signed a 1-year, $2 million extension (plus incentives) with Boston through next season that could make him the sixth-highest paid defenseman on the roster after McAvoy and Carlo receive new deals as restricted free agents.
Even if he isn’t the same player he was earlier this decade, there’s little to no reason to think Chara can’t play beyond next year even. The new contract figures are indicative of a player who’s accepting of his role -- a role that may be different from the Chara we’re used to, but a role that there’s still plenty of room for on the Bruins as he approaches an even more rarified air of seniority.