Good luck replacing the defenseman who’s skated more games than anyone at his position since the dawn of the 21st century.
That is, in all likelihood, the task before the Boston Bruins when they take to the ice for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night at TD Garden.
Zdeno Chara, Boston’s 42-year-old captain, took a puck to the face in the second period of his team’s 4-2 loss on Monday night that allowed the St. Louis Blues to pull even with the B’s once again. Multiple reports have stated that Chara’s jaw is, in fact, broken, leaving his status for the remainder of the series in doubt.
He hasn’t been officially ruled out yet – and if there’s anyone who could pull a Willis Reed and be out there on Thursday night, it’s Chara – but you don’t need to have a medical degree to know the prognosis isn’t great. Reasons for optimism do remain, most notably in the plight of Derek Stepan, who had a similar dilemma to Chara in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Regardless, the B’s may be without their captain for the second time this postseason. Chara missed Boston’s closeout game against the hilariously overmatched Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final, a move that was more precautionary than anything else.
The Blues would never be confused with the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, but as we’ve witnessed through four games, they’re at the very least a real hockey team, an opponent that must be respected, unlike the Bruins’ previous matchup.
Chara isn’t the only Boston blueliner to learn the hard way that St. Louis is a different breed, which makes its conundrum on the back end even more disconcerting. Matt Grzelcyk suffered a concussion in Game 2 vs. the Blues when he took a hit to the head courtesy of Oskar Sundqvist and hasn’t played since, though he was spotted at practice on Wednesday morning wearing a red non-contact jersey.
Chara’s injury was a freak one, of course, but it begs the questions: how do the Bruins address their defensive group moving forward?
It’s no accident Boston’s two losses have come in the games which saw Grzelcyk and Chara leave early and unexpectedly. It’s not that the Bruins can’t withstand the loss of either player, at least not in a vacuum.
Rather, it’s that when you prepare for a game with six defensemen and suddenly find yourself playing with only five, that adds up. Boston wasn’t blown out by St. Louis in either of its losses, but the fact it lost in overtime in Game 2 and gave up a go-ahead goal in the third period in Game 4 suggests that depth is the name of the game.
So, where do the Bruins go to address said issue?
Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Torey Krug and Connor Clifton are givens to be in the lineup. Steve Kampfer and John Moore have been thrust into duty at points this postseason, giving Boston six defensemen with legitimate NHL experience. Easy enough, right?
Of the group, only Krug and Moore are left-shot defensemen. It’s not unheard of to go with an unbalanced approach, and Clifton and Carlo do have experience playing together, but it’s not a method Boston coach Bruce Cassidy prefers.
The potential return of Grzelcyk, a left shot, would make things easier. Stopping at six defensemen may not be the right move right now though.
You can’t plan for an injury, but in a series in which three of the four games have been decided in the third period or overtime, fresh legs on the back end just might make all of the difference against a Blues forecheck that’s been mostly devastating. Dare the Bruins go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen for – at least – Game 5?
David Backes, the former St. Louis captain, has now gone six straight games without a point. Danton Heinen has merely an assist to show for his last six games, the helper coming in Boston’s 7-2 blowout win in Game 3 vs. the Blues. What would you really be missing if either one of those players came out of the lineup at this juncture in favor of an extra body on the back end?
With or without Grzelcyk, Boston could also turn to one of its top prospects in 20-year-old left-shot defenseman Urho Vaakanainen, the team’s first-round draft choice in 2017, or 22-year-old Jeremy Lauzon, a 2015 second-round pick and also a left-shot. Both players have already made their debuts during the regular season, meaning the damage has already been done when it comes to burning a year off their rookie deals – not to mention potentially protecting them during Seattle’s expansion draft, set to take place in 2021, which is another issue for another day.
The Bruins likely couldn’t survive an entire postseason without Chara, who despite his declining speed, leads the NHL with a plus-12 rating this postseason (no other player is higher than plus-8). For just a few more games, however, options are in place, even if they are unconventional.
You don’t go about replacing Zdeno Chara, but the Bruins are fully capable of surviving without him.
If that’s what it even comes down to.