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Good problems: Is Zdeno Chara still the best defenseman on the Bruins?

August 15, 2018 - 10:49 am

The NHL Network came out with its list of Top 20 active defensemen over the weekend. If we told you two Bruins d-men made the list, who would you choose?

If your answer is Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy, you'll approve of the list. If you're wondering where Zdeno Chara is, you're just as triggered as one of us at WEEI.

This argument is actually fun unlike dreadful Tuukka Rask dialogue:

1. It doesn't really matter.

2. It all depends on how you define "best" defenseman. 

3. It's a good problem these Bruins have.

So let's have a painless debate -- is the Bruins' 41-year-old captain still their best defenseman?

Chara is still the No. 1 Bruins defenseman -- Sara Civian

We lived through the the late 2000s-2011 when Chara was the best defenseman on the Bruins -- and in the league. We’re eager for the 2020s, when all signs point to the peak of McAvoy’s reign of terror. We’ve even thought ahead to the end of the next decade, when all the little Krugs will grow up to embarrass penalty killers around the league.

I know it’s hard to live in the moment, but let’s just try to stay right here for a second.

It’s simple to me: The best forward is the one most responsible for his team winning the Cup. The best defenseman is the one most responsible for his team not losing the Cup.

On August 15, 2018 Chara is still the one most responsible for the Bruins not losing. 

If you recall last season’s playoffs, you’ll remember the Bruins weren’t having trouble containing Auston Matthews and Steven Stamkos -- the No. 1 d-pairing of Chara and McAvoy pretty much had that covered. The depth and second-line matchups were the issue there.

You might argue Torey Krug’s voluminous point production is the trend NHL defense is headed on, and to a degree you’re right. If we’re making this a points contest (which we shouldn’t), it’s not Chara’s fault he only saw a :23 TOI average of power play time -- regardless, he ended the season with 24 points, third overall for defensemen behind Krug and McAvoy.

So, what makes Chara a “better” defender than the two who scored more points than him?

They couldn’t have lasted two rounds in the playoffs without Krug's offensive contributions, most notably his Round 1, Game 7 equalizer -- but the Bruins would’ve been down more than just one goal without Chara. Simply and statistically, at even strength the Bruins perform better on offense when Chara is out there.


To add to my “the best defenseman is the one most responsible for his team not losing” theory, remember what Matt Grzelcyk said the locker room was like ahead of Game 7, period three?

“Zee stepped up, was f------- screaming at us in the locker room, getting us going.”

That’s gotta count for something, right?

McAvoy is right there, and maybe soon he’ll pass his mentor. The two have a great thing going -- Chara can trust another defenseman to eat the most minutes, McAvoy can trust Chara while he gets more comfortable taking risks at the NHL level.

But all things considered, Chara has the most defensive impact on this team right now.

Chara isn't the No. 1 Bruins defenseman -- Scott McLaughlin

Let’s make one thing clear: this is not a “Chara stinks” argument. That has always been a bad take, and still is. Chara is still quite good, and to still be good as a 41-year-old defenseman who has never been fast in a game that is made for the young and fast is remarkable. At the risk of turning my potentially hot take into a cold one, I’ll say that I think Chara, Krug and McAvoy are all pretty close, and I’m not going to get into a shouting match if you want to pick Chara.

However, I do think NHL Network has the right idea putting Krug and McAvoy in their top 20 ahead of Chara. Captain Chara is still the unquestioned leader of the team, and especially the defense, but Krug and McAvoy have nudged ahead of him in terms of what they bring to the ice.

Let’s start with Krug. It’s tempting to just focus on defensive zone play and penalty killing and say advantage Chara. But that ignores the massive contributions Krug makes offensively and on the power play.

He was the Bruins’ fourth-leading scorer last season, behind only the three members of the top line, and set or tied career highs in goals (14), assists (45) and points (59). He was eighth among all NHL defensemen in points per game. His 24 power-play points were tied for ninth among defensemen and were a huge reason the Bruins had a top-five power play (credit to Chara on the other end, though: he was a big reason they also had a top-five penalty kill). Krug was also fourth on the team in postseason points with 12 in 11 games.

Chara used to get up around the 50-point range, but his offensive game just isn’t at that level anymore. He finished last season with 24 points (7 goals, 17 assists), which was his second-lowest total in an 82-game season in 15 years. Again, this doesn’t mean he’s bad. Twenty-four points plus his defensive assignments, penalty-killing minutes and leadership is nothing to sneeze at.

This head-to-head battle essentially comes down to whether you think the gap between Krug’s offense and Chara’s offense is greater than the gap between Chara’s defense and Krug’s defense, and I think it is.

McAvoy vs. Chara is a little closer for now. I have no doubt that it will swing decisively in McAvoy’s favor fairly soon, possibly this season, but the NHL Network list is about right now.

It’s also tougher to evaluate because McAvoy and Chara played together so much and helped each other a lot. McAvoy, as a 20-year-old rookie, benefited from playing with a stabilizing veteran who could stay back and give him some freedom. And Chara, as the aforementioned not-so-fast old man, benefited from having a smooth-skating young partner who could handle a lot of the breakouts.

McAvoy had a slight edge in points (32 to 24) and a bigger impact on 5-on-5 possession numbers, while Chara once again has his biggest edge in penalty-killing contributions. Both battled through injuries late last season, with McAvoy looking like the stronger of the two by the second round of the playoffs and leading the team in ice time during the postseason.

It’s close. I could dive deeper into advanced stats like Corsica.Hockey’s expected goals-for percentage, WAR or player ratings (McAvoy has the edge in the first two, Chara has the edge in the third, and Krug leads both of them in two of the three), but this write-up is already too long for responding to some silly offseason list, so I won’t.

Suffice it to say that the Bruins don’t have a true Norris Trophy contender as of right now (McAvoy certainly could be some day), but they do have three very good defensemen who, collectively, are better than most teams’ top three defensemen. Enjoy them.