Zdeno Chara is, by consensus, one of the top five defensemen in the NHL today. Few players in the history of the game have been able to direct traffic the way he can. Being 6-foot-9 and possessing the wingspan of a small jet, he’s able to use his long stick like a velvet rope at a nightclub to keep the riffraff from going places in his zone he’d prefer they not go.
Also by consensus, he’s struggling quite a bit in the early going of the Stanley Cup final. Despite only being minus-2 in the series, it’s been more visible than the scoresheet indicates. Put simply, the thing that stands out most is just the fact we’ve come to expect better from the 2009 Norris winner.
There are two main theories on why Chara’s play has deteriorated and while it is possible for guys to just be “off” occasionally, sometimes it turns out to be just what we expected. And since we certainly won’t find out what his issue is until the series is over (thanks, NHL secrecy), I thought it’d be fun to bat around the two possibilities.
So first, the obvious:
This category needs a few sub-headings, because there are a myriad of reasons he could be dragging tail.
A) Minutes played
In Games 1 and 2 of the final, Chara logged more than 28 minutes of ice time, totaling 56:21 (that includes 11 seconds of overtime, I feel like adding for some reason). And that amount of ice is consistent with his playoff average of 28:17 (most of anyone still playing, third overall).
However, that’s up nearly three full minutes from his regular season average of 25:26 (sixth most in NHL). For context, the league leader in TOI over the regular season was Duncan Keith at 26:53, meaning Chara is averaging 1:24 more per game than the ridiculous number Keith racked up, only Chara is doing it during the year’s most intense hockey.
That would be tiring.
B) Quality of competition
It would make sense for the guy to peter out now, given he just came off a seven-game series where he had to chase Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Martin St-Louis around the ice. Logging big minutes is one thing, but logging those minutes against some of the best players in the world really takes it to another level. Now Chara is being asked to contain the Sedins, which is like herding cats if cats were telepathic and super good at hockey.
He’s somewhere around 260 pounds. If you’ve ever seen a boxing match where the two guys scrapping are in the 110-pound weight class, it’s not hard to see that it’s easier to have long-term stamina at that size. Think of a hummingbird, for example - those little dudes keep the wings a-flappin’ constantly. Chara is no hummingbird.
This has been the consensus opinion from most fans and media members and it’s probably accurate. Tired or not, it’s bizarre to suddenly see such a drop in Chara’s quality of play. The last Alex Burrows goal was 11 seconds into overtime after a 15-minute sit-down in the dressing room. There’s no reason to come out for the first shift and not be able to have at least a little burst in your step, which is what Chara needed there. It’s like he couldn’t turn aggressively to stay with Burrows - maybe it’s an ankle?
I remember forcing myself to play with a separated sternoclavicular joint in playoffs - the only things it limited me from doing were hitting, shooting, passing hard, taking hard passes, skating aggressively and drinking from the water bottle. But like an idiot I played (because that’s what you do), despite being zero help to my team. Guys do that stuff all too frequently and it seems more and more likely that’s what we’re watching out of the big Bruins captain.
The only possible thing left is the hybrid theory. “Guys, I’m kind of hurt in nine places, though nothing is serious. I’m kind of tired of chasing the best players in the world around. Playoffs last forever and I’m just physically done.”
There are five games left at most, so we’ll know sooner rather than later. For the Bruins’ sake, they better hope he’s just had a couple off nights and that he can bounce back into his usual form over the remaining Cup final games.
Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. Justin will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.