Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Big Z has big expectations
By Joe McDonald ESPNBoston.com
BOSTON -- There's been speculation that some NHL players who signed contracts to play in the KHL would remain even after the NHL came to terms with the players' association on a new collective bargaining agreement. But Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara had no plans to remain with his KHL team in Prague, nor was he asked to stay, after the CBA deal was reached.
During the lockout, star players such as the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, the Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk and the Flyers' Ilya Bryzgalov voiced concerns about returning to the NHL. Ovechkin and Bryzgalov have already returned, but Kovalchuk remains in Russia. Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello told ESPN New York's Katie Strang on Wednesday that he expects Kovalchuk will be at training camp.
Chara returned Tuesday from Prague, where he played a total of 25 games and registered four goals and six assists. After spending more than an hour on the ice Wednesday morning at Boston University's Agganis Arena with a few of his Bruins teammates during an informal skate, the captain said he was never asked to stay in the KHL.
Zdeno Chara stayed sharp by playing in the KHL during the lockout, but Ilya Kovalchuk is one star who has yet to return to his NHL team.
"No," he said. "It was pretty clear in my contract once the NHL is beginning, or the deal is done, then I'm leaving. It depends how the guys feel or how they want to decide what to do. I can't really tell you what they're going to do.
"We're going to have to wait and see. There's a lot of speculation, a lot of uncertainty, but we'll see."
In the early stages of the lockout, Chara said it was frustrating because one minute he was ready to pack his bags and return to Boston, only to then be told a potential deal was not close.
"Early on, yes," admitted Chara of his frustration. "There were some stages where the emotions were going from absolutely being excited to being disappointed. But the last month, month and half, you kind of get used to it, basically just waiting for a yes or no."
During his stint in Prague, Chara said he logged ice time similar to what he normally has with the Bruins (usually 20-plus minutes per game). The style of play, however, is different from the NHL, but Chara was able to prepare himself for when he was told to return to Boston.
"There are some really skilled guys," Chara said. "There are some players who are very highly skilled as far as skating and handling the puck and making plays. I think it's less physical, but skatingwise and skillwise, it's a little bit different. There are some high-tempo games. There are some games that are more focused on defense. Every game is a little bit different."
Now that he's back in Boston, Chara wants to focus solely on the Bruins. He said he's healthy, in shape and ready to go.
The Bruins have not been together as a team since April 25, 2012.
They had just lost 2-1 in overtime to the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at TD Garden, and the following day the players dispersed with intentions of reconvening for training camp in September.
The NHL lockout put a damper on those plans.
As a result, 12 Bruins players decided to play overseas for various teams, while the rest decided to stay and train in North America. Communication between NHL teams and their players was forbidden during the lockout. Chara spoke to a few of his Bruins teammates during the work stoppage, but he knew the players would be ready once the new CBA was ratified.
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"I knew a lot of guys were playing, a lot of guys were busy in different leagues all over the place," explained Chara. "It's hard to be in touch and in contact. Obviously with some of the guys, I was in contact, but some of them I couldn't. From what I've heard, guys who didn't play were very disciplined, skating on their own and keeping themselves busy."
The NHL's board of governors ratified the new CBA Wednesday afternoon and now the NHLPA will conduct a vote to ratify the agreement, which is expected to be completed by Friday. Training camp for all 30 teams is expected to open on Sunday.
Chara has high expectations for his teammates once they're all back together at the team's practice facility in Wilmington, Mass.
"I'm expecting everyone to be in shape and ready," Chara said. "I think we are still one of the better teams that had most of the guys involved and playing. There were some guys who couldn't, but they're still in shape and they look good. It's our responsibility going into camp to be in shape and ready to go."
Even before the lockout began, the Bruins were favored as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. The core of Boston's roster remains the same ever since it won the Stanley Cup in 2011. The Bruins are a young and talented team, and given the shortened schedule, they should have an advantage over most teams. They also had the most players (12) of any team in the NHL to play overseas.
Chara, however, is not taking anything for granted.
"I don't think it's going to be easy on anybody," he said. "When you have such a quick start with that many games it's going to be hard no matter what, so all the little things will make a difference. You've just got to be ready to go."