The latest bit of news from the people who follow the Bruins closest is all about new power-play formations. Captain Zdeno Chara and his enormous frame has long led a generally terrible Bruins' power play from the back, while fans and pundits not-so-quietly wondered if the 6-foot-9 defenseman was better suited to occupy the low slot.
The image they're invoking now is Patrice Bergeron's game-tying goal against Toronto in Game 7 of the opening round of playoffs last year. Bergeron's tame-looking wrister sailed unseen over James Reimer's right shoulder. In front of the Leafs' helpless goaltender was Chara, providing a screen that resembled some kind of eclipse. Naturally, everyone assumed it was the answer Bruins coach Claude Julien and his staff have been looking for all these years. As though they only noticed their captain and best player was uncommonly tall at that exact moment.
No matter the role Chara fills on the Bruins' power play this season, my expectations for its success are not particularly high. Talk up the new strategy all you want, I'll believe it works when it does. For Chara, though, the discussion, at some point, needs to shift from what his role on the power play will be to if he should have one at all.
Obviously, he is a strong option to man any number of spots on either the first or second unit. But his ultimate value to this team is not on the man advantage, whether he's taking up space in front of the net or terrifying shot-blockers and goaltenders alike with his slap shot. The Slovak's status as a Hall of Fame defenseman and Bruins' legend arose because of his play at the other end of the rink.
Moreover, the success of this club depends on his ability to play his usual thousand minutes a night. Putting him low on the man advantage opens him to a pair of especially dangerous realities that will almost certainly hamper his effectiveness as the season progresses. Between goaltenders and defensemen, the beating on Chara's legs during those 45- to 60-second shifts in front of the net will eventually hobble him. Moreover, the quick shifts back and forth will tire him more quickly than the casual back and forth at the point.
Removing him from the power play entirely isn't really an option even with a defensive corps rich with strong shots and quality puck-movers. Limiting the minutes of 36-year-old franchise defenseman is difficult for a team that relies on him so heavily. The effect of the occasional power play off for Chara could be huge, especially with a shortened summer after a second run to the Stanley Cup Finals in three seasons.
Last year, Chara averaged a shade more than 24 minutes per night -- his lowest since the 2003-04 season. It wasn't evident, though, that Julien was trying to use Chara less, nor should he have. Still, this team has the loftiest of expectations and will for the next three or four seasons. Any measure that can help the defenseman find a bit more energy in latter stages of the season and playoffs must be explored.
With the power play, specifically, the Bruins have options at the back. Additionally, there are other perfectly serviceable choices to play the net front on the man advantage. Chara may be enormous, but his long-term health is among the most important elements of a successful Bruins' season.
Chara turns 37 in mid-march of 2014. It's not uncommon for players of his nature to last into their late-30s. Testing this with unnecessary shifts on the power play, though, may backfire. If not this year, then it almost certainly will in the future -- no matter how many lengthy bike rides and mountain-climbing trips he takes every offseason.
Ultimately, removing Chara from the power play entirely isn't an option. In his seven seasons with the Bruins, 72 percent of his 89 goals have come on the power play. Moreover, the constant threat of his shot does open space along the half-wall and in the slot for his teammates. The issue is more about using his time most effectively. Even at 5-on-5, it would make sense to reduce his minutes with multi-goal leads or in other situations that don't call for a behemoth monitoring things at the back.
Zdeno Chara remains among the NHL's best defensemen. The success of the Bruins in the last five seasons has come just as Chara finally figured out the best way to maximize his ability at either end of the ice. He's a truly unique player to watch, and the Bruins must do everything they can to keep him healthy for as long as possible.