Even before the bad news about Johnny Boychuk came out tonight, I was getting a little worried about Zdeno Chara’s workload.
Now that Boychuk is definitely going to miss about a month with a fractured bone in his forearm, the Bruins captain and his five blue-line sidekicks are going to be pushed even more.
Boston is now tasked with making due without Boychuk’s 20 minutes, 23 seconds of average ice time. That’s not going to be easy, especially when you consider Boychuk is one of the club’s key point men on one of the Bruins’ power-play units.
Picking up the slack in Boychuk’s absence becomes even more difficult when you consider how taxed Chara has already been through the season’s first half dozen contests. Chara has averaged 28:17 of ice time, including a season-high 31:48 Saturday night against the Rangers (obviously skewed by Boychuk’s departure during the first period and his inability to return over the final 40 minutes).
While Chara has been playing some of his best hockey as a Bruins backliner since the first puck dropped on the 2010-11 season, you have to be a little worried about how long he can keep it up as the Bruins pile on the minutes. Remember, in Chara’s Norris Trophy-winning season of 2008-09, he averaged just 26:04 of action per game. Last season, that number dropped to 25:22. Through the first six games of last year, he was right around the 25-minute mark.
Despite his superhuman off- and in-season workout regimen, Chara’s career in Boston has truly been a tale of increased production in fewer minutes for the now-33-year-old blueliner. Every season since he first pulled on a black-and-gold sweater Chara’s average ice time has decreased, down from 27:58 during the Dave Lewis-coached debacle and 26:50 in Claude Julien’s first season behind the bench. Admittedly, Chara tried to do way too much during his first couple years with Boston. Part of the way to alleviate the pressure on him was to trim his minutes. The Bruins’ improved supporting cast on the back end the last couple years has made that coaching action a lot easier than it would’ve been in the days when Boston was leaning on the likes of Paul Mara and Jason York to aid Chara’s cause.
The Bruins’ current cast of defensemen is still a lot better than that motley crew from Chara’s first Hub season. But in order to avoid grinding Chara into the ground with 30-minute outings over the course of Boychuk’s injury absence, the Bruins’ quintet of complementary blueliners is going to have to expand its workload. Obviously, that starts with Dennis Seidenberg playing more than his average of 23:49 and maintaining his level of two-way effectiveness, particularly on the power play.
Depending on how Boston approaches replacing Boychuk on the man-advantage, Andrew Ference and Matt Hunwick are probably also going to need to play more – and do so with less gaffe-prone play. Both Ference (16:17 against the Rangers) and Hunwick (15:52) surpassed their season’s average for ice time Saturday, albeit to varying results. Ference had a difficult time executing his breakouts against the desperate Rangers’ aggressive forecheck. Hunwick endured an up-and-down night but looked better during some extra shifts he took with Chara, who has always been a great elixir for any defensemen looking to turn his play around.
For now, it looks like Adam McQuaid will get a chance to step into the lineup in Boychuk’s place after sitting out the first six games. If he gets a sweater, McQuaid is going to have to prove he has improved since last winter. While he held his own in certain situations, and averaged 10:14 of ice time in 19 games, McQuaid also spent a lot of time scrambling off the ice to avoid certain matchups. McQuaid is going to have to give the Bruins a solid, mistake-free 12 minutes of night to be a help.
If Boston deems McQuaid’s not qualified for that role, then we could see the first NHL regular-season test for Matt Bartkowski or Steve Kampfer, the two first-year pros the club’s brass gloated about throughout training camp. Should the incumbent vets be able to stay on their game even with expanded workloads, sticking a rookie in the lineup for 10, 12 minutes (maybe even alongside Chara for a few shifts) might be a way to stem the tide during the Boychuk-less stretch of games.
While if pressed to guess before the season you might’ve picked another more likely candidate or two than Boychuk to go down, you knew that at some point Boston’s back-end depth was going to be tested by injury. This is where organizations get exposed if the depth they’ve banked on in the abstract can’t come through in the reality.The solution cannot be as simple as asking Chara to do even more, or by spring the Bruins’ star might be a shadow of his Norris-worthy self.
I, for one, have questioned if the Bruins have enough options on defense to maintain a championship-caliber level of play over the course of a full NHL season since camp opened. Now we’ll find out if this team is really built to stay afloat without a key member of its defense corps for the short and long term.