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The Best Deal Ever in Free Agency

January 14, 2020, 9:37 AM ET [8 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
Blogger •NHL Hall of Fame writer • RSSArchiveCONTACT
As Zdeno Chara nears the human age where bone shrinking begins to occur, his reach–and the unfair practical advantage it always has given him–remains the best argument for widening the NHL rink.

About to turn 43, he still turns more than well enough to make it virtually impossible for opponents to take a circuitous route; the longest arm span ever on an NHL player only the start of the factors explaining it is not at all a reach to call the tallest player in NHL history also its best-ever free-agent signing.

Some of these prove ill advised from the start, virtually all the biggest ones become a cap burden after a few years. Chara’s has kept paying dividends into about four overtimes.

True, he only originally signed for five of the 14 years he has been a Bruin and on Tuesday night in Philadelphia played only the 1000th of his 1530 career games in that uniform. But certainly a half-decade opener to the relationship was the beginning of one of the most beautiful relationships ever in sports.

Chara was reflecting Tuesday morning about how, there having been no pre-July 1 pre-negotiating period in 2006, the Boston offer that arrived among others that noon required him to fast make the most fateful decision of his life. The Bruins wouldn’t have had to have studied all of Chara’s four years in Ottawa to project the obvious – that a 6-9 guy would give them some length, but, of course they had no idea he would provide this kind of length.

“Obviously you don’t see very often players staying with one organization for that long,” Chara said. “I’m very fortunate.”

Equally lucky, of course, remain the Bruins, who will find the cap room this summer to go another year with Chara for better reasons that just for old time’s sake. Not only do defenders like this not grow on trees, only in Northern California forests do the trees grow so huge.

“Whether you get 22 minutes or 20 he is a shutdown guy every night,” said Coach Bruce Cassidy. “You have that in your back pocket.

“With his skating and positioning; the other team’s top guys are going to be in for a difficult night. The way the game has changed Zdeno has adjusted with it. He has been able to keep up with the pace whereas some others haven’t. That’s a credit to his fitness.”

Whether or not the players enjoy the game and the life as much as still does Chara, almost nobody in this era walks away from another offer for another year of more millions. But as the metabolism slows, pushing one’s self away from the table is the bare minimum of workouts required to play into one’s mid-thirties, let alone a mind-boggling mid-forties.

Unless you’ve never had a burger and fries, we would all like to indulge in them regularly, in addition to finding something more fun to do with three hours every summer day than spending them at the gym. But asked what sacrifices he has had to make to add extra years to his career, Chara thought for a second and said, “I don’t think of them as sacrifices.”

“You got to be willing to change a few things in your game, preparation and training. If you play this long you can’t be stuck in the same way. Always try to improve.

“You have to be lucky, too, but it really comes down to having passion. You have to have the will to go above and beyond, believing those things eventually will pay off.

“You have to accept that it is not always going to be great and (deal) with some adversity and challenges. But that’s the nature of our lives, no matter what you do. Once you hit those [setbacks], you have the mindset that you never give up, always go after it.

“But you have to love what you do.”

Having chafed in the most unsatisfying of non jobs in a Red Wing back office for two years, Gordie Howe adored the game even more than ever after signing with the Houston Aeros for the extraordinary privilege of playing with his two sons. Freed of the wrist problems that caused him to retire the first time, Dad, age 46, was the best player in that league, according to Mark. Not willing to let go even at 52, Gordie really had retirement forced upon him.

Jacques Plante, Johnny Bower and Gump Worsley were smarter than the shooters at 44, how they could compensate for slippage of world-class reflexes. That would be harder today; Roberto Luongo and Dwayne Roloson bearing witness.

Perhaps the position on defense will be kinder to Chara as he takes aim at Howe’s record 1767 games – and to even think Gordie played another 419 in the WHA -- than it was for Jaromir Jagr, still playing for HC Kladno at soon-to-be 48. The best of defensemen learn to let the game come to them, one reason why Chris Chelios made it 48, the other being he remains an amazing physical specimen even at 58. When the skill level is that high, they can tolerate the drops better than say, Willie Huber could, and keep going.

That Mark Messier pushed it a couple years too long to 43 takes nothing away from his legend. But again, it’s harder for a forward. A smart coach is helping Chara, too.

“Over the years we have cut down some of his minutes,” said Cassidy. “On a stretch like this of three (games) in four nights, we try to make sure he is not in the 25-minute area.

“The evolution of some of our guys–Charlie (McAvoy) and Torey (Krug) can handle the minutes–helps. But it’s not a hard rule that every night Zdeno will play only X amount of time. It depends on the situation.

“In the middle of three games in four nights, we had an optional practice Sunday and he was out here. He loves the game.”

Chara is not in the Bruins lineup to set an example of professionalism, although he certainly does. It’s still easier for a player to get an RFA offer than it is to go around No. 33. The big guy had big minutes games of 28, 26 and 25 in last spring’s long haul to Game Seven so we’ll see what’s left come this April, when the Bruins will lean on him to lean on opponents some more.

Coming off a hard close call, this season’s Bruins remarkably suffered no hangover, jumping out 20-3-5 before the realities of their sparse secondary scoring depth has set in. After picking apart a young Flyer defense to a 5-2 lead Tuesday night, they stopped playing, lost 6-5 in the shootout, and are 7-5-7 in the last 19.

“The goaltending, our D, yeah I think they can both take their share of the blame of some of those goals there especially that four-on-four,” fumed Cassidy. We got three different guys circling out of there; it’s inexcusable.

“In the third period you have a lead that’s gotten away from you, we’re (normally) pretty good at buckling down. And no compete in front; no urgency to keep the puck out of the net from three of our players.”

Assuming they will be the Bruins again by April, Boston still will not be deep enough to use a 43-year-old man on the second pair. A ghastly loss in Philly hastens their coach’s grey, but more to the point, they need some young guys to quickly come of age, and having picks Nos. 13-14-15 in the 2015 draft and somehow not taking Mathew Barzal will be inevitably haunting.

Patrice Bergeron is 34, David Krejci 33, David Backes 35, and Brad Marchand 31 with a lot of miles on the odometer for his size. Have we also mentioned that way up there, Chara is getting up there? You don’t want to say that this is last call for a fine Bruins cycle of contention that produced one Cup and two more finalists but you can start to see the end from here, which will make another run this spring, should the Bruins have it, that much more compelling.

That said, Chara should have had his last hurrah about five years ago. As a Boston landmark, he has outlasted Jimmy’s Harborside for goodness sake. If Atlantic Division fans from outside New England are getting tired of the Bruins’ rule, Chara’s not showing any weariness. So it’s fair to say that at 42 he has long since won, and that the Bruins hit the lottery the day they signed him.
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