Clearly overreaction knows no boundaries.
The idea that the Bruins should consider trading captain Zdeno Chara started in the Bay State and has now made it 2,000 miles away to Edmonton. The exchange rate obviously hasn’t affected lunacy.
Piggy backing on the report from Boston that was the talk of post-Patriots sports radio last week, the well-respected Mark Spector of Sportsnet today posted a piece entitled “The Tough Call the Bruins Face with Zdeno Chara.” Mark has always seemed like a swell enough guy. But the headline (which he probably didn’t write) and his story are a little off base. The decision the Bruins have with Chara is far from hard. In fact, there’s no choice but to keep Chara.
The No. 1 reason the Bruins and Chara should stick together for the remaining three years of the defenseman’s contract is simple: the Bruins are not rebuilding and have no reason to do so. The notion that the current Bruins, who despite all their injuries and cap management issues are still in possession of a playoff spot, are even close to being in the desperate straits of the likes of Toronto, Carolina or Arizona is ridiculous. And comparing the current Bruins to the Calgary Flames of a few years ago, like Mark does in his piece, is off base for several reasons.
Here’s the part of the story that shows he doesn’t quite have his finger on the Bruins’ pulse:
Not to fact check the story, but the Flames last made the playoffs in 2009. They traded Iginla in 2013. So they had missed the postseason three seasons (2010-12) before the trade. They hadn’t won a round of playoffs since their run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2004 before dealing Iginla. The Flames were in desperate need of a rebuild for several years until they finally parted ways with Iginla.
Of course, the Flames back then had more problems than Iginla taking up salary-cap space. The Bruins don’t have nearly as many weaknesses. The Bruins have an elite goaltender, Tuukka Rask, in his prime and signed long-term. They have two elite centers — Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci — in their primes. They have a young defenseman, Dougie Hamilton, with elite potential. I’ve never heard anyone with in-depth knowledge of the sport of hockey deny that Hamilton say anything worse than Hamilton is a No. 2 defenseman. The Flames did not have anything close to this, nor did they have any of the other parts that have kept the Bruins in the thick of the fight this season. The Flames needed a makeover. The Bruins merely need a haircut or a wardrobe upgrade.
The Bruins are two seasons removed from reaching Game 6 of the Cup finals. They’re one season removed from winning the Presidents’ Trophy and reaching Game 7 of the second round. Obviously past success does not guarantee future triumphs. Mark is right that the Bruins’ poor drafts have left the farm system a little depleted, which will make it more difficult for general manager Peter Chiarelli to replace the players he’s inevitably going to have to jettison because of salary-cap concerns. The past couple drafts (one of which produced David Pastrnak) have reportedly borne more fruit. So when it comes time to make the difficult decision to part with someone like Milan Lucic or Brad Marchand to free up cap space, there might be someone waiting in the wings to replace them. It doesn’t even have to be someone from the farm system. Replacing one of those players could be as easy as another forward stepping up production or a low-risk free agent having a hot season. History tells us, though, that replacing a winger for a year or two is a lot easier than replacing a No. 1 defenseman for three years or more.
Nonetheless, Chiarelli is going to have to be a shrewder manager of assets and the salary cap. His scouting and development departments are going to have to do a better job. Maybe two or three years from now, the Bruins will be in 2013 Calgary Flames territory if Chiarelli fails. The distance between that and the Bruins right now, though, is the same as the distance between the cities of Boston and Edmonton.
Chara has to be part of any roster restructuring the Bruins go through the next three years. Even as he inches toward 40 years old, he’s still among the top 20-25 defensemen in the NHL. This fact passes both the eye test and fancy stats analysis. This season has been a learning experience, and at times a struggle, for Chara. He’s had to deal with getting older, missing seven weeks with a knee injury playing on a team that can’t seem to get in sync. Even if this is the new normal for an older Chara with a bum knee, he’s proven that some nights he can still be an elite shutdown defender. And on the other nights, when he’s at 70, 80 percent, he’s still a better defenseman than what most teams have in their top two or three.
Chara’s cap hit stays near $7 million the next two seasons. But in the last year of the contract, he’ll only be a charge of $4 million. That’s beyond fair for Chara’s services, especially as he continues to adjust his play to his diminishing capabilities. Think of him as the aging fastball pitcher that has to learn to work more with his breaking stuff. That’ll be Chara for the next few seasons. Surround him with the right goaltender (done) and young defensemen (Hamilton, Torey Krug are a start, and Zach Trotman, Linus Arnesson and others might be part of the package too soon), his value to the Bruins as a player will always be greater than what they could get for him in a trade.
The only reason anyone is even breaching this subject is because Chara’s play has dropped off. So how do you go about getting value for him from teams that can see the same decrease in effectiveness as you? No one available who comes to Boston in return for Chara steps into his spot in the lineup and makes the Bruins better or even keeps them where they are. Any player worthy of being in a Chara trade would also carry a hefty cap hit or be in line for one soon. Suddenly you’re back where you start financially but you’ve hurt yourself on the ice.
There are no sure things when it comes to prospects and draft picks that might come in a package. Even if the Bruins were perfect in their selections, they’d have to pay those players down the road.
One month ago the Bruins were on a five-game winning streak and everyone declared they were back. Now they’ve lost four in a row and suddenly everyone should be available in a trade. The Bruins aren’t as bad as they’ve looked lately and not as strong as they looked last month. They’re something in between. That’s a far cry from the team that thought it was going to challenge for the Cup this year, and Chiarelli deserves the bulk of the blame for his flawed cap management and roster construction. Plenty of players have performed below projections, which mostly their fault and partly Chiarelli’s fault for not being ready to remedy the situation quicker. But this team is still on the brink of being in championship conversation with the right maneuvers in the offseason.
The Bruins’ recent success has distorted perspectives. Short memories have blocked out the days when the Bruins were the equivalent of the 2013 Flames or the 2015 Maple Leafs. I’m not guaranteeing a parade in 2015, 2016 or 2017. But I’d bet on the Bruins never getting near a Duck Boat if they trade Chara.