Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Why this may be toughest Chara absence for Bruins to survive

Matt Kalman
November 15, 2018 - 5:17 pm

Zdeno Chara played all 48 games of the 2013 lockout-shortened Bruins season.

In the five seasons after that before this season he missed 42 games, mostly during the 2014-15 season when he missed 19 games with torn ligaments in his knee.

The Bruins went 21-14-7 without Chara, meaning they nearly lost as many games as they won but they were able to grind out points and not completely let a season slip away without him (although they missed the 2015 playoffs by a point).

We don’t know how long Chara will be out after he sustained a lower-body injury in the first period of the 6-3 loss at Colorado on Wednesday. But the Bruins sent him back to Boston to be re-examined on Thursday.

Let’s take a look at how the Bruins dealt with Chara’s past extended absences and look for lessons they can take into their potentially Chara-less future.

2014-15 (19 games, torn knee ligaments, 11-7-1)

Chara’s injury in fall 2014 came during a rash of injuries similar, but not as severe, as the one the Bruins are enduring now. David Krejci and Kevan Miller were out for the majority of the time Chara missed, Brad Marchand missed three games and Adam McQuaid was out for the last eight games of Chara’s time off.

The Bruins leaned on veteran Dennis Seidenberg and third-year pro Dougie Hamilton to make up for most of Chara’s minutes. It was a stiff test for Seidenberg, who was a notoriously slow starter but managed to make up for Chara’s exit from the penalty kill and key defensive matchups. Hamilton was still finding his way at the defensive end but with Seidenberg’s help was able to hold his own. Torey Krug had to accelerate his development into more of a two-way defenseman and showed signs of the player he is today.

Joe Morrow, Zach Trotman, Matt Bartkowski and David Warsofsky all filled in for the injured defensemen to varying levels of success. We all know that in the Claude Julien days, the Bruins played a safer system, so there were fewer chances for the younger, inexperienced D to get in trouble, especially when paired with Seidenberg or McQuaid.

2016-17 (6 games, lower-body injury, 3-2-1)

Chara missed a seventh game because of illness later in the season that the Bruins won. But the Bruins stayed above water during the lengthier absence because Kevan Miller was able to step into the lineup and showcase his improved play, while John-Michael Liles picked up some more minutes and put his veteran savvy to work until he was injured and missed the final two games of Chara’s absence. Colin Miller then helped pick up some of the slack.

2017-18 (9 games, upper-body injury, 5-1-3)

Last year’s Bruins team was the best equipped to get by for at least a short spurt without Chara, and there was no better proof than their 2-1-2 record when they were missing both Chara and Patrice Bergeron. Charlie McAvoy was out the whole time Chara was out and Torey Krug, David Backes and Rick Nash also spent time on the sidelines during that stretch, making the period almost comparable to what the Bruins are going through now.

When Krug was in, he played well. More importantly Brandon Carlo and Matt Grzelcyk made huge strides and both Kevan Miller and McQuaid managed to stay healthy and serve as the defensive backbone of the team.

2018-19 (absence length unknown)

The problem the Bruins face right now is that all their injuries are on defense, with their entire starting right side gone and their No. 1 left-hander now joining them. Without Carlo and McAvoy, John Moore, was already being asked to fill in too many defensive spots that he was probably already ill-equipped to handle. He’s an excellent skater and decent defender but he’s not a 2014 Seidenberg.

Krug and Grzelcyk have made up for their lack of size and become excellent defensemen but there’s just so much they can take on their plate without hitting their physical limitations.

With Urho Vaakanainen also out with a concussion, the Bruins have had to dig deeper into the farm system. Jeremy Lauzon hasn’t looked out of place 5-on-5 but was a little overmatched on the penalty kill in Colorado. There’s no telling if he’ll be able to handle increased responsibility.

We have no idea what Jakub Zboril can do in the NHL but we know that he hasn’t always played with the requisite amount of intensity and smarts in the AHL. And Connor Clifton has always been an adventure at both ends in the AHL and just earned his first NHL contract last spring. These guys aren’t exactly earning their promotions as much as they’re receiving them through attrition.

Miller should be back during this road trip and McAvoy and Vaakanainen may not be far off. But this is definitely the Bruins’ greatest Chara-less challenge in the past six seasons.

The Bruins’ farm system is being pushed to its limit and coach Bruce Cassidy is going to have to strongly consider playing a more conservative style until at least half his missing defensemen are back. The immediate future is bleak if Chara is out for a while and the other established NHL defensemen don't return soon.