Chara should be Chiarelli’s main focus in free agency

Chara/By S. Bradley

Whether he’s going to fine-tune the team he has assembled or perform a major shake-up with a trade of Marc Savard or another star center in an effort to make sure 2010-11 erases the nightmares of the spring of ’10, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has to at least be casting one eye beyond the upcoming season.

In what might be one of the more under-reported stories surrounding the Bruins, captain and superstar defenseman Zdeno Chara is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent one year from Thursday. July 1, 2010 is also the first day the Bruins, under the guidelines of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, can negotiate a contract extension for their cornerstone player.

Chara’s contract situation could have a huge impact on the future of the franchise and the careers of the coaches, the general manager and everyone that cashes a check from the Bruins. And Chara’s future free agency might already be affecting how the Bruins do business, including the current situation with Savard.

Chiarelli doesn’t discuss contract negotiations with specific players, and Chara’s agent Matt Keator declined to say anything on the record about what could be a record payday for his client. However, one would expect that when Chiarelli and Keator talk about restricted free agents Mark Stuart and Blake Wheeler, Chara’s situation will come up.

You don’t need to be a scholar on Bruins history to know that Chara’s predecessors in the team’s annals of Hall-of-Fame defensemen – in order: Eddie Shore, Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque – all finished their NHL careers elsewhere. Chara would be equally difficult or maybe harder to replace on the Bruins’ back end, especially in a day-and-age where the best players are re-signing with their own clubs for practically their entire career and the salary cap limits ludicrous bidding wars. The modern-day draft, and the attention it receives, also prevents a Wren Blair from working over a family like the Orrs to lure a hot prospect to Boston and makes it rare that a talent like Bourque slips to eighth overall (or that you could acquire a pick that high in exchange for just a player of Ron Grahame’s caliber).

As of now, scheduled to join Chara on the free-agent market among defensemen are Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom, Montreal’s Andrei Markov, Ottawa’s Chris Phillips, Toronto’s Tomas Kaberle, Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen, and Vancouver’s Sami Salo, Kevin Bieksa and Christian Ehrhoff. When you figure that Kaberle is expected to be traded somewhere he can re-sign for the long term, Lidstrom’s two options are usually returning to Detroit or retiring, and the Canadiens are expected to put the full-court press on to keep Markov, it becomes even more evident that Chara will be the crown jewel of the market. With centers Joe Thornton and Brad Richards, and winger Alex Semin, also potential unrestricted free agents that are pretty likely to stay put, Chara’s price keeps going up.

Chara will be 34 next summer, but with his workout regimen and dedication, he’s a young 34. There’s no doubt he could have six or seven solid seasons still in him, especially if the team he plays for in the second half of this decade can reduce his minutes a tad with a solid supporting cast. The goal total might’ve dipped a bit for Chara this season (who on the Bruins didn’t dip in the goals department?), but the assists were still up there, he was a plus-19 on a struggling team, and there’s no telling what his totals will be on an improved Bruins squad this coming season.

It’s not crazy to think that Chara will be looking for a raise on the $7.5 million salary he has been taking home since he agreed to come reawaken the Bruins franchise July 1, 2006. After a slow start, he has been everything the Bruins needed him to be, as an on-ice force at both ends of the rinks, a player that can physically dominate a game (especially in the playoffs) and won a Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman in ’08-09.

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