- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- At the end of each season for the Boston Bruins, some people question whether or not captain Zdeno Chara can continue to perform at a high level despite his advancing age and heavy workload.
On Friday, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien wanted to put to rest the notion that Chara appeared tired when the Bruins' season ended Wednesday as the Montreal Canadiens eliminated Boston from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"He's far from being dead," Julien said. "He's very much alive and in very good shape."
"[Chara] is a world-class defender, and he played a good series but not a great series," Chiarelli said. "Was he tired? I didn't think he was tired. He may have looked to you that he was tired, but he's a big, tall, long guy, and those strides, when they get going, it doesn't always look like he's fast. Montreal, they have the smaller forwards that buzz around, and I think all our defenseman had some difficulties."
At the start of the season, Julien and Chiarelli explained they had a plan in place to manage Chara's ice time so he would be fresh once the playoffs arrived. Part of the idea was moving him from the point position on the power play to the front of the net so he would not have to skate back and retrieve pucks all the time. Overall, Chara still averaged 25 minutes per game, and it didn't help when fellow defensemen Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid were lost for the season due to injury.
Julien was questioned numerous times throughout the season on the topic of Chara's ice time. On Friday, the coach said he felt the media was blowing the subject out of proportion. Chara is 37 and has played 1,273 career games in the NHL, including playoffs. With the exception of a finger injury on his left hand, Chara, Julien and Chiarelli all say the captain has plenty left in the tank.
"Anybody who thinks he was tired at the end, you're wrong," Julien said. "He wasn't tired and he was fresh and we shouldn't underestimate Zdeno because of his age, because he's a real fine-tuned athlete and he's capable of taking a lot. He takes good care of himself."
Chara did not want to discuss his injury, saying it would sound like he's making excuses.
"I felt fine, physically and mentally," Chara said. "Obviously, losing Dennis and Adam throughout the regular season maybe put more of a load on certain guys, and for sure maybe even on me. But it's not something that we were not handling, or we were getting caught off guard. It's just the way it happens sometimes. You lose guys throughout the season, and you have to pick up more minutes. It was a great chance for our guys to step up and play well, and they did play very well."
Chara isn't getting any younger, but he doesn't believe his age is an issue. The Bruins will likely attempt to manage his ice time again next season, but it's too soon for him to think about it.
"I haven't put too much thought into next year, yet," he said. "I think it's just something that's a decision that the coaching staff and management have to think about. Again, I'm going to do my best to be in the best possible shape for the upcoming season, as I always do, and I'll be ready for next season and play my best."
Part of the reason the Bruins lost in the second round of the playoffs was due to Seidenberg's absence with a knee injury. For the majority of the regular season, Seidenberg is paired with another partner, but once the playoffs arrive, it's normal for him and Chara to become a pair. When that happens, they usually shut down the opposition's top lines. Both players are under contract for the next three seasons.
When asked what it would be like without Chara in the lineup, Seidenberg said: "I don't want to think about it because we have a number of years [left], so there's no reason to even think about it."
Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask has the best vantage point behind Chara. The veteran defenseman has been a valuable presence on the ice, and Rask doesn't see that changing anytime soon.
"Well, he's not going to get younger, but he works so hard to stay in shape that I don't think the conditioning is going to be an issue," Rask said. "But when your body gets older, he can't be logging 30 minutes a night five years from now, obviously. Maybe he has to realize that playing less minutes might be [to] his advantage at some point. That's going to be tough for him because, knowing the person he is, he wants to be out there the whole time, but I think it's good to have these young D and them learning from him and growing into a role that Z doesn't have to play half an hour, 35 minutes every night. He can trust five other guys out there."
Part of that young core of defensemen is Dougie Hamilton. In his first full, 82-game season after a lockout-shortened 2012-13, the 20-year-old defenseman showed vast improvements in all aspects of the game. It was evident that he could be the type of player to dominate at both ends of the ice, and being partnered with Chara will only help Hamilton's development.
"It's a lot of fun and real important for me to learn from him," Hamilton said. "It started last year when I first got here, even the year before in my first [training] camp, when I was paired with him. I think we're going to continue to develop together, and hopefully I can continue to get better and make it easier for him so he doesn't have to carry me all season like he did. It'll be fun to keep moving forward and learning from him."
There's an image on the wall outside the Bruins locker room at TD Garden. It's a picture of Zdeno Chara hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head in 2011. The Bruins came close to achieving that goal in 2013 but lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the finals. This season, Boston was the odds-on favorite to win, but the Bruins lost in the second round to the Canadiens.
With the window beginning to close on his wonderful career, it's fair to wonder if Chara will ever hoist the Stanley Cup again for the Bruins.