WILMINGTON, Mass. – Although there have always been rumors alluding to him being more machine than man, Zdeno Chara is not equipped to log 30 minutes per game and be the beast of the player needed for the Bruins to succeed.
Luckily for the team and its captain, the coaching staff recognizes that.
So although Chara is averaging 28 minutes, 17 seconds of ice time through the season’s first six games, you shouldn’t expect him to be around that number by the time Christmas trees are up and colored lights are decorating the houses.
“It’s not going to be like that the whole time,” said Bruins head coach Claude Julien today after practice. “I think it’s just getting started here and where we were in our situation … and guys getting used to the left or the right. [Dennis] Seidenberg has had a slow start. So we know once he picks up his game to the level … I think everything will even out there.”
Chara’s no stranger to monster workloads. In his first season in Boston, he logged 27:58 per game. He famously struggled that season in his attempt to be both a captain and a superstar with the Bruins after serving as a complementary player in Ottawa. There were also issues with a lack of structure under then-head coach Dave Lewis.
Although it’s unlikely he’ll be asked to keep up at his current pace, Chara agreed that he’s better equipped to handle it now.
“It’s just a different situation. Obviously when you come to a new team, new city, you maybe feel a little bit of the responsibility or the pressure to impress more or to show that ‘OK, this is why I’m here,’” he said. “Now it’s more like, I know I can do it, I know this is the game I’ve been playing for so many years, but it’s more about playing really good position-wise. I know I can do all those things, all the elements of the game, but there are certain times when you have to pick the spots to go and run ahead, or pick a fight, or jump into the play. Sometimes you have to just stay back and be calm and relax instead of trying to do everything on every shift. It’s impossible or otherwise you’re going to run out of gas halfway through the game.”
Each season with the Bruins before this one, Chara’s average ice time has decreased and his play has improved – highlighted by his Norris Trophy win in 2008-09. Last season, he averaged just 25:22 of ice time. Julien said that while there’s no concern about Chara wearing down this early in the year, he and his staff will keep a close eye on the 33-year-old as the weeks ahead unfold.
“There’s no way we plan on playing him 30 minutes a night every night,” stressed Julien.
Last season, Chara exceeded 30 minutes in a game six times, but only three times in a game that ended in regulation (including the last two meaningful games of the regular season, when Boston was still gunning for a playoff spot). With his 31:48 Saturday against New York, Chara already has one 30-plus-minute regulation game to go with two 29-plus games. Now that Johnny Boychuk’s on the shelf for a month, it might be difficult to whittle down the gargantuan defenseman’s time.
Chara’s confident he can handle the minutes thrown his way, but is also upbeat about the current sextet of defensemen meshing better and lessening his burden.
“I feel good. I feel strong. That’s what I work for over the summer, to be able to take a load of minutes and be out there and try to feel as fresh – maybe taking shorter shifts maybe more often. Or sometimes, maybe you have to stay out there,” he said. “But as I’ve said before, I’m not looking to break any records or to play whatever minutes. For me, the most important thing is to win hockey games and play simple. If there’s time to change, obviously, I’m just like everybody else, I’m changing. Just because you feel like you could [keep] playing, there is six guys and we have to trust each other to play those minutes.”
It’ll bear watching how much ice time Chara has to take on as the Bruins’ schedule gets busier. How much time the club can entrust to other blueliners will probably determine the legitimacy of the team’s championship hopes.