BOSTON - Don Sweeney has seen firsthand the commitment and the drive that has allowed a 41-year-old defenseman to thrive as his team's No. 1 defenseman and captain. It is the blueprint that Boston's general manager hopes all of his players follow for years to come and why keeping Zdeno Chara in the mix beyond this season was of such high priority.
"I don't think I can just limit it to one player the impact that he has," said Sweeney. "I've spoken very highly of our core group, and it certainly starts with he and Patrice [Bergeron], but the impact he had last year with Brandon Carlo, and now you're seeing with [Charlie] McAvoy; it really is a ripple effect through our whole hockey club.
"Every player realizes the bar is set so high with a player that has accomplished as much as he has, yet he shows up every day - during the All-Star break, out doing some extra work on his own. At times, when we're trying to get him off the ice, he wants to be on it more.
"I think the example for excellence starts with Zdeno in our core group, and it really permeates throughout our entire lineup."
And it's why Sweeney locked up Chara with a contract extension on Wednesday morning, inking the 20-year NHL veteran to a one-year, $5 million deal beginning with the 2018-19 season. The contract also contains an additional $1.75 million in performance-based incentives.
"Very thankful and grateful to be in this position," Chara, who arrived in Boston in the summer of 2006 and is the longest-tenured captain in the NHL at 12 seasons, said during a press conference at TD Garden. "I think it works for both sides. Very pleased…it was very important that I continued to play and stayed in Boston. I believe in this team. It's very exciting to be a part of this team. I think this team has a chance [to win], and that's all you can ask for.
"The rest of it is up to us to do on the ice. That was my priority: to stay in Boston, to be a Boston Bruin."
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While acting as a mentor for Boston's plethora of youth, Chara has at the same time been inspired by the performance of his young teammates, some of whom were not even born when the Slovakia native made his NHL debut with the New York Islanders in 1997.
"It's very exciting to see how the upcoming young players are making such big impacts in very early stages of their career," said Chara, who has partnered with the 20-year-old McAvoy on Boston's top pairing this season. "You look at our roster and our lineup, you can really see the process of developing and bringing players - Charlie, Jake DeBrusk, [Anders Bjork]. You can go on and on.
"They're just making our team better. We got faster; we're playing with a lot more pace."
As a result, Chara - the second-oldest active NHL player - has been forced to amend his game. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound blue liner has adapted a new plant-based diet, while also tweaking his game on the ice to improve his speed, quickness, and overall skating ability in order to keep up with the NHL's new wave of talent.
"Just keep pushing myself every year, every season, every summer to be better," said Chara, who has helped pace the Bruins to the postseason in nine of his 12 seasons and a Stanley Cup in 2011. "It's simple as that. If you don't do that, everything else will catch up, and you're just going to be one of too many, and I don't want to get to that. I want to be always pushing myself to be better and believe there's room to improve.
"Seeing how skilled and developed these young players are coming up, that's the motivation, that's the drive, because you see how easy these things are being done…if you want to continue to play, you've got to do something extra."
The results are undeniable. Chara has turned back the clock this season, teaming with McAvoy to form one of the league's best shutdown defense pairings. In 68 games this season, the five-time All-Star has posted 23 points (7 goals, 16 assists) to go along with a plus-26 rating - which is tied for the eighth highest mark in the NHL - while still averaging 23 minutes per game. His average of 3 minutes, 41 seconds of shorthanded ice time is second in the league behind only Toronto defenseman Ron Hainsey.
"He's been a dominant player this year," said Sweeney. "He takes all of the hard matchups still, doesn't shy away from any situations and has embraced the role that he's kind of emerged into, peeling back a little bit of situational things and being very open-minded to that.
"You see his minutes are still up there, and some nights, probably a little too high…he makes us a little nervous about it, but he's still the one saying, 'No, no, no, open the door, I'm going.'
"Again, that just speaks to his preparation, and it also speaks to the fact that he wants to continue to play, and that's part of it. He's indicated that he wants to perform at a high, high level, he expects to perform at a high level, and he's backed that up."
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Chara has missed the last seven games with an upper-body injury suffered in Carolina on March 13. But the captain resumed on-ice activity over the weekend and skated with fellow injured Bruins David Backes, DeBrusk, and McAvoy on Wednesday. Sweeney indicated that all are progressing well and while there is no timetable for their returns, he hopes to see them back in game action by the end of the regular season.
"I'm so proud of the team, and what the guys have been able to do with so many guys being out of the lineup, very proud of them," Chara said of the Bruins, who have posted a 3-1-3 record in his absence. "It's great to see how they battled every game, coming back from being down two, three, four goals and still getting points.
"Just a great indication that this team has a never-give-up attitude and [is] willing to fight till the last whistle."
When Chara does return to game action, he plans on it being for quite some time.
"It goes by performance. I have to perform. That's the bottom line," said Chara. "No matter how long you want to continue to play, you have to perform. You have to back up your status, so I know I need to go out there every night and do my job, perform and play hard and work hard and be a great example for my teammates.
"That's just hard to really put a number on it, but obviously we all know you can't play and be lacing up skates forever. But I just feel, at this time, [there's] still plenty left, and so I want to enjoy it."