After the regular season, an NHL scout was debating the merits of Zdeno Chara's Norris Trophy candidacy, and estimated that he was 80 or 90 percent of the player he once was. And Chara still turned in a season that this scout thought was the best among any defensemen in the league.
He meant it as a compliment, but it’s also a warning sign that Chara’s skills are declining. He’s 37 years old and human, as much as his play at times suggests otherwise on both fronts.
It’s what makes this transformation of the Boston Bruins defense we’re currently witnessing both important and impressive. When they won the Stanley Cup just three years ago, they did it with the following group on defense: Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Tomas Kaberle, Andrew Ference, Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid. The average age: 29.8.
Now, one game away from returning to the Eastern Conference finals, the Bruins are close to the final four with a markedly different look on defense. Chara still anchors the group, no small consideration. But now, it’s rounded out with Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton, Boychuk, Kevan Miller and Matt Bartkowski, with Andrej Meszaros rotating in depending on Claude Julien’s feel for the next game.
When Bartkowski is in, the average age of the Bruins' defensemen behind Chara is 24.8.
The transformation is the result of a declining salary cap, mixed in with injuries (McQuaid is out for the season with an ankle injury, while Seidenberg hopes to return to the lineup). The names have become so familiar to us -- Hamilton a high-profile part of the Phil Kessel trade and Krug one of the breakout stars of last postseason -- that we sometimes forget how inexperienced things are on the Bruins' back end.
That they haven’t shown it is one reason the Bruins have been able to push the Montreal Canadiens to the brink of elimination and a return trip to the conference finals.
“I look to the older guys. I just try to follow those guys and what they’re doing,” said Miller when we chatted before Game 5 in Boston. “It’s more a mentality and preparing. If you show up and prepare, put the time in and then you really let the chips fall where they may. These guys prepare so well before games. You get on the ice, and it’s second nature.”
The play of Hamilton has especially been a revelation for the Bruins.