What's the Window of Opportunity for Big Zee and the Bruins?

Thursday, 05.22.2014 / 2:04 PM
Caryn Switaj  - BostonBruins.com

BostonBruins.com - On July 5, 2006, a 29-year-old Zdeno Chara was introduced as a Boston Bruin. He was entering his ninth season in the NHL.

The Bruins had not made the Conference Semifinal since 1999. They hadn't reached the Conference Final since 1992. They hadn't reached the Final since 1990. They hadn't won the Cup since 1972.

"I’m just very happy to be a part of this organization," Chara had said, among his first words to Boston media on that July day. "Hopefully, we can turn it around."

Their window of opportunity was starting to re-open, with a nudge from a 6-foot-9, 255-pound defenseman.

"I just want to be involved in this whole process. I am not afraid of a challenge," he said, of choosing Boston as a highly sought-after free agent.

"I am willing to lead by my example with hard work, dedication, discipline, and drive. I want to put this team on the winning track. Once we do that, I want to contend for a Cup and be champions."

Chara was named the 18th Captain in Bruins' history on October 3, 2006, with Patrice Bergeron named an alternate captain, as a ripe 21-year-old, who played well beyond his years. Future alternate captain David Krejci played just six games in the League that season in 2006-07, Chara's first in the Spoked-B. He was 20. He, too, would help push the window open.

Milan Lucic (now 25) would join a season later, in 2007-08. The first full-time NHL role for Krejci (now 28) came in 2008-09. Tuukka Rask (now 27) came over from Finland in 2007-08, and would join Boston full-time in 2009-10. More pieces would soon fall into place.

In 2011, that window swung wide open, as Chara and Bergeron led the Bruins to their first Cup in 39 years, after three straight years of heartbreaking Game 7 defeats.

Ready to try and repeat in 2012, they fell short in another Game 7. With a return to the Final in 2013, another chance to hoist Lord Stanley was in their grasp, before Chicago snatched it away. In 2014, a Presidents' Trophy-winning season led to disappointment with their second round exit in Game 7 at the hands of the Habs.

Eight years after first wearing the Spoked-B, Chara is now 37 years old, coming up on his 17th NHL season in 2014-15.

No team has played more playoff games than Boston in the past four seasons (66), and Chara has been there through it all. The Captain now has the wear-and-tear of 141 playoff games and 1,132 regular season games.

How long will the championship window remain open, for Big Zee and the Bs?

"Well, I feel, because of the way we played in the regular season, we haven’t fallen off the cliff," said President Cam Neely, during his year-end press conference.

"We didn’t play as well as we needed to play in the second round, and from my perspective, as a group, we didn’t play the way we were playing in March and in April. Aside from maybe Zee, our core group is still relatively young. You’re talking mid- to late-twenties, maybe, and Zdeno is still, in my opinion, the best defender in the game."

"So I still think we’re in our window. We just have to recognize what we need to do to make our team better, whether it’s guys playing better or whether we’re adding different players."

Neely was one of the former Bruins to call Chara in 2006, before he signed with Boston, to share insight into the tradition of the Spoked-B, and the organization he'd be joining.

Back then, Neely wasn't part of the organization's management group yet. But he could see the change coming. Now, he's a prominent part of the minds tasked with making those changes.

He's also a prominent part of knowing what does not need to be changed - and that's the core group, led by Chara.

"Our organizational leadership…they’ve done a great job of really trying to assemble a mixture of both veteran and some young leadership to bring us back to the promised land, if you will," said Bruins Principal Charlie Jacobs, at that same year-end press conference, of Neely, General Manager Peter Chiarelli and his staff.

"I have a tremendous amount of confidence in our on-ice leadership and off-the-ice leadership - a lot of character in our dressing room, and it starts with Zee," said Jacobs. "But listen, there are a lot of complementary pieces, and when you consider Patrice and Krech…then there’s a lot of character and leadership."

"I have great faith in both aspects. I do believe we’ll be right back there [competing for the Cup]. I expect that we’ll be back there."

The young core players are all coming into their prime, if they haven't already, and have many miles to go.

The lingering question now, is how many miles the big man still has to go.

"I'm not looking at the window closing, or my age," said Chara, speaking with media on the team's breakup day after 2014's disappointing end.

"Anytime you lose, personally, I think we all feel that we come up short. I mean, that's the main goal. We all set the goals before the season starts, and especially when you know you have that team that is capable of winning and you don't reach that potential, then yeah, it is disappointing, but you've just got to keep trying, and learning, and get it right the next time you go into it."

This isn't the first time Chara has seen a top-notch regular season go to waste.

In 2002-03, his Ottawa Senators earned the Presidents' Trophy, before losing in the Conference Final to New Jersey. In 2005-06, his last season with Ottawa, they finished second in the League before falling in the semifinals.

"Every year you learn something different," Chara had recounted on that July 5th day in 2006. "Here in Boston, I don’t think we will care as much to win the Presidents' Trophy in the regular season. The only thing we care about is the final goal, to win at the end. I felt that sometimes in Ottawa, we peaked in the regular season. I think that it’s important to have a peak in the end."

"You need to have 'will over skill.' You have to want it and have the drive."

Besides the physical (we'll get to that down below), that mentality and that drive is what keeps Big Zee going. 'Mind over body,' you might say, and he won't rest until he gets Boston back to the top.

Putting in the Work

There was a day, back on March 27, 2014, when the Captain did something he doesn't normally do. The Bruins had just defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 3-0 at TD Garden. For close to 15 minutes, Chara stayed in his stall in his workout clothes, way past the time he needed to be in the locker room entertaining questions from reporters. He was usually well into his postgame workout by then.

He was candid, and bantered about his fitness, rest, the constant talk about his 'minutes,' and how the game has changed since he entered the League.

There's a fixation on Chara, and the amount of rest he needs to stay at the top of his game.

When it comes to his minutes, he frankly doesn't care how much ice time he gets. "It's just one of those things that I want to play well, whatever minutes I'll get, I'll do my best," he had said.

But when it comes to his fitness, he'll put in as many extra minutes as he can. Anyone who has heard the stories of him working out on his family's farm growing up, or of him riding stages of the Tour de France route in the summer, knows where that drive comes from.

Chara will never walk away from anything - most of all, the game - without giving it his most.

"I’m still enjoying the workouts," he said. "I really love the extra work. It’s one of those things that I will always do, no matter what. I’m enjoying every day and every minute that I’m at the rink, and I’m trying to be obviously the best I can."

"Doing the extra work off the ice or on the ice, it’s part of it. You have to love it, and I really do love hard work and competing. So, I just love to maintain my physical balance with kind of a mental rest, too. But I just enjoy it."

How Many Minutes to Go?

Fast forward to the Bruins' breakup day on May 16, 2014 and, again, Chara and his minutes were hot topics.

"He’s a terrifically conditioned athlete," said GM Peter Chiarelli. "He’s very serious. He works hard in the offseason. He’s, to me, for hockey, the way he can move with his size, it’s unparalleled."

"So it wouldn’t surprise me if he continues status quo for a little bit, a year or two years, three years. But just laws of physics and nature, the older you get, the less effective you’ll be. But he’s an impact defender."

Chara's size and fitness level have defied those laws till this point, even if the majority of his minutes hold more weight, constantly playing against top players.

"I’m going to do my best to be in the best possible shape for the upcoming season, as I always do, and I’ll be ready for next season, and play my best," said Chara.

"I’m going to tell you right now — for whatever reason, this minute thing about Zdeno — you guys are way obsessed with it, to the point where I think it’s blown out of proportion," Bruins' bench boss Claude Julien said with a smile, and meant every word.

"There’s some games where we gave him less minutes because we could. There’s other games where he’s played more because he had to, and I’ll tell you what: Anybody who thinks he was tired at the end, you’re wrong. He wasn’t tired, and he was fresh and we shouldn’t underestimate Zdeno because of his age, because he’s a real fine-tuned athlete and he’s capable of taking on a lot."

"He takes good care of himself, so on, and so forth, but moving forward, what I would answer you is, we’ll see when we get there, because I don’t have the answer, how Zee’s going to be halfway through next year or two years from now or when he’s 41."

"And I’d be wasting a lot of time trying to speculate that, but when you look at other guys, too — to me, Dougie Hamilton will be a guy that will be on a lot of people’s lips here moving forward at the rate he’s improving. I think he’s going that way, he’s going to be an elite defenseman. We've got [Dennis] Seidenberg, who we really missed a lot this year — there’s a lot of guys that can help."

"That would be my answer on Zdeno and all these minutes," he continued. "And he’s far from being dead, guys. He’s very much alive and in very good shape."

Keeping the Window Open

It's realistic to see that window for Big Zee and the Bruins starting to close in the coming years. Every team goes through it. A player can only defy the odds for so long. A team must evolve.

But for now, the Cup is still realistically attainable.

The core leadership is in its prime, Chara's still 'alive' and well, and young players like Hamilton can only help to prolong his career.

"We saw that he was handling playing against top players, his skating ability is a huge part of his game," Chara said of Hamilton, who took on Seidenberg's shutdown role alongside him during the postseason.

"I just think it comes down to not getting to a place where you're kind of happy with whatever [you've] done. You always have to work and try to get better."

"Because this game, it's a funny game, you think you have it figured out and all of a sudden, there's always something new and you've got to be always willing to be getting better."

"I think it's a lot of fun and really important for me to be able to learn from him," said Hamilton. "We're going to continue to develop together and hopefully I can continue to get better and make it easier for him, so he doesn't have to carry me all season like he did. So I think it will be fun to keep moving forward and keep learning from him."

Chara's smart. He knows that Hamilton's growth, being able to play in that role, is a key step in keeping the Bruins' championship window open.

"Yeah, yeah, it is," he agreed. "No question about it."

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