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Norris Glamour or Not, Zdeno Chara Deserves to be Recognized

by Caryn Switaj / Boston Bruins

BostonBruins.com - Zdeno Chara had been a Boston Bruin for seven seasons.

Before the start of the 2013-14 campaign, his GM and coach asked him to make a significant change.

Could he leave the wheelhouse of his one-timer - and arguably the patented hardest shot in the League - behind on the man-advantage, and assume a new role?

"He made the switch, at our request, to being in front of the net on the power play," said General Manager Peter Chiarelli. "That was one of the reasons our power play has improved so much."

"Not that he would never not accept, because it’s his job, when we ask him something, but his willingness to embrace it and stand in front of some pretty good shooters, and to take a beating there and the puck recovery, to take a beating, it’s a difficult job - and we had a hard time finding a quality person who had that quality."

"And Zee embraced it."

Practice after practice, there would be Chara, and his 6-foot-9 frame, standing in front of the empty net, asking his teammates to fire pucks at him, so that he could work on tipping them.

Practice after practice, and pregame skate after pregame skate, the Bruins' defense would routinely break off to one end of the ice, while the forwards practiced shooting at the other. The D would stand inside the blueline, firing at Tuukka Rask or Chad Johnson from the points, working on their low, hard shots to produce rebounds.

And there would be Chara, around the net, working to see how quickly he could recover the pucks, forehand, backhand and flip them into the twine.

"It’s never easy to be standing in front of the net. It’s a position or it’s a spot that you have to really battle hard for and make sure you’re willing to take some shots and be willing to do whatever needs to be done," said Chara.

The work paid off - both for him, and the Bruins.

He spent nearly 188 minutes on the man-advantage this season, with the majority of those minutes spent down low, screening the goalie, being an outlet for a pass, deflecting and retrieving pucks, and winning the battles.

Nine times out of ten, 'Big Zee' would win the battle. But it wasn't just his 6-foot-9, 255-pound brawn that would outmuscle and do the work; it was his smarts, too.

Chara scored 10 of his 17 goals on the power play, and notched 15 of his 40 points on it. Both goal totals were the second-best marks of his career. He finished fourth among all defensemen in scoring.

Boston finished the season ranked third on the power play. With Big Zee moving to the front of the net, it allowed players like Torey Krug and David Krejci to mostly post up at the points on the unit, and Jarome Iginla to find himself space for the one-timer.

"It was definitely something new, and some new challenges for me, but I look forward to those," said Chara. "Before every season, I always say that I want to be better. I want to improve, and sometimes, these kinds of new things bring more motivation and kind of a little spark."

"I was willing to do a little extra after practices and whatever guys needed me to do in that position, to help them be better at the power play this season."

Norris-Worthy

On Monday, Chara was rewarded for his extra work, by being named one of three finalists for the James Norris Memorial Trophy, joined by Chicago's Duncan Keith and Nashville's Shea Weber.

"Good on him [for making the switch], and he’s scored some goals," said Chiarelli. "He wasn’t the glamour guy who was taking the one-timer – but he still does it, and you see he does it quite well."

While the Norris votes have been cast, Chara's impact on the Bruins' first round series win over Detroit - an extension of his entire regular season - is just as much an indication of his worthiness for the nomination. His shutdown presence was in full effect, and his blast of a one-timer on a 4-on-3 power play gave Boston the go-ahead goal they needed to eventually close out their series-clinching 4-2 victory on Saturday.

"I thought this past series he was terrific. I know it was after the voting, but I thought he was just terrific," said Chiarelli. "He still gets up. You know, you play a team with a real star [in Pavel Datsyuk], and he really takes that as a challenge."

"I think he deserves the nomination, I think he deserves the award. And it’s no offense to the others – the other two are both obviously very good players."

For the GM, Chara's game never varies. But 2013-14 could arguably be considered one of his most consistent, given the team's consistency all season long. They never lost more the two games in a row, and their 54 wins tied the second-most in franchise history. They went 30-2-2 in games when Chara recorded a point, and 14-0-1 when he scored a goal.

"It’s one of those things that you’re very proud of and it’s something that you need to have the whole team working towards the same direction and working together," said Chara, as he addressed media during a press conference at TD Garden Monday, after the nomination was announced.

"And it’s a reflection of the whole season, having a steady and strong season as a team. That’s why we have a number of guys nominated. I’m very humbled and obviously it’s a huge honor to be nominated."

No Risks, All Reward

While Chara put up numbers this season, he would never let them take away from his defensive play. His new role on the power play actually somewhat aided in that.

Posting up front took some minutes off Big Zee's back (part of the "master plan," as Chiarelli put it). He didn't have to skate the length of the ice for every re-entry. When combined game after game after game, that could wear on him. With the extra ounce of energy, Chara could focus on what he does best - shutting down the most talented players in the game.

"Again, good on him for accepting a changing role and recognizing that his game, he’s not getting any younger, but to me, his game hasn’t really changed," said Chiarelli.

"He’s the best defender in the League – I don’t think anyone’s close, defending."

Chara earned his first - and only - Norris in 2009. He finished second in 2004 and third in 2008, 2011 and 2012 for the award annually given “to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position.”

"I think with Zee, he doesn’t have the sexy stats," said Chiarelli. "So no, it doesn’t surprise me [that he hasn't won it more]. It’s a little disappointing, but he doesn’t have that coast-to-coast ability - I know we’ve seen it a couple of times, but that’s not the trademark of his game."

"This guy defends. To defend is so difficult, and to love doing it, there’s very few players who love doing it, and he does. So, you know, maybe there should be a best defensive defenseman, I don’t know."

Chara finished 55 of his 77 games this season with an even or plus rating, despite being matched against the opposition's top players. He finished ninth among NHL defensemen in shorthanded time-on-ice at 244:44, serving as the Bruins' primary penalty killer.

"I’m not going to be a guy who’s going to put up some highlight-reel goals or plays. I have once in a while, but I’m not going to try to run around the ice and chase the points," said Chara. "I’m not going to be taking risks."

"Playing against top lines, I want to do it the right way and I want to play the game the right way. I always take a lot of pride in my defensive game. I want to be always strong defensively and take care of my zone before I jump up and help the offense."

"Obviously, you have to be able to do both, but I’m not going to be taking chances just because I want to be getting more points. I like to work really hard and I enjoy competing against top lines, top players in this league, so I want to do it the right way and that’s the way I think it’s always been for me."

Backbone for the Back End

When the Bruins lost Dennis Seidenberg for the season, it could have deteriorated their defense. Let Boston's first round series against Detroit be an indicator of what one big-time player's absence could do to a D corps, with the Wings missing Jonathan Ericsson for the entire series.

The Bruins also lost Adam McQuaid this season to a nagging groin injury, stripping more size, physicality and stability from their back end.

After a brief adjustment period for a less experienced blueline, with Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski and Kevan Miller filling the void, the Bruins regained their defensive stride, backed by veteran Johnny Boychuk and Captain Chara.

"I don't think we can even think about having a young D or inexperienced D now. We don't think about that anymore, whereas at the start when it happened, that's all everyone wanted to talk about," said Hamilton. "We just have to keep proving that we're playing more experienced than we really are."

They do that by following Chara.

"He's obviously a leader, and obviously the leader of the defense, and he brings the intensity and the tempo and all of that - you just kind of have to follow him," said Hamilton. "Everyone brings their own thing, and everyone's intense, but he's definitely the leader."

"We all look up to him and for me, personally, just watching him and trying to be like him."

"His play, in the context of the young D, I should put the spotlight on him a little bit more," Chiarelli admitted. "Compressed schedule, coming off a long year last year, Olympics, you know, he’s a smart player who has a terrific defensive impact. He is able to make the younger D accountable and, at the same time, make them feel wanted."

As the backbone of the defense, Chara led a squad that allowed the second fewest goals in the NHL (171) in 2013-14, paving a path for Boston to earn a league-best +84 goal differential. Of course, plenty of credit should go to Vezina finalist, Tuukka Rask, and Selke finalist, Patrice Bergeron.

But we witnessed stretches - albeit brief - of lapses in the Bruins' defense this season, especially during that adjustment period in January, and while Rask can be a miracle-worker, the corps in front of him needs to be just as strong.

Chara excels in the team's defensive system, because he makes every player around him follow suit. Not because he openly demands it; but because his work ethic dictates it.

The Teacher

"He’s a good teacher because he is a good example," said Head Coach Claude Julien. "How he prepares, how consistent he is throughout the year, and all of the stuff that comes with it."

"I can watch him a lot and learn from him, and I like that," said Hamilton, who may not have developed as quickly as he has in his second NHL season, if not for being with Chara day in, and day out.

"I think when you think about D-men and Bruins, you think about Zee," said the 20-year-old. "Maybe leading up to the draft or getting drafted, I didn't know if I was ever going to play with Zee, so I think just to be able to be playing with him now is pretty cool. It's something that I want to keep doing."

Outside the game of hockey, a manager at a business must hold his employees accountable, while also motivating them. It's no different for Chara, who consistently helps everyone around him get better, and in turn, makes the Bruins better.

"You do have to take some responsibility and take a little bit upon your shoulders," said Chara. "You still want to be helping younger guys with their development, or speed up the development or the experiences they might not have yet, but at the same time, you don’t want to be doing a job for them and then not doing your job."

"So it’s kind of a balance that you want to help, but you want to make sure you focus on your game and let them, at times, figure for themselves how to play. They do a really good job — all the young guys we have, they really made huge strides from the time they got here, or they got called up, or trades. They made really smooth adjustments."

"I think that’s the big thing, that he has confidence in the player," said Chiarelli. "It’s important for him and any of the older players to recognize the potential in these players, the willingness in these players to want to get better, the youthful enthusiasm, the whole package – to recognize the value that they bring to the team, the psyche of the team and just general performance-wise."

"Zee has been around a while, he sees players come and go, he knows good players and that kind of excites him when he sees good players."

When a player like Kevan Miller is signed to a new contract, Chara is one of the first to congratulate him the day after in the locker room with a handshake and a hug.

Always willing to talk, he'll answer questions, point out corrections, and provide encouragement.

"He's been a guy that we can lean on, ask questions to - being a younger defenseman, you learn a lot from him, his game, how much he prepares," said Krug. "If you do something wrong, he's going to let you know about it, and uses it as a teaching point."

"He holds us accountable, and at the same time, makes you feel confident, that you can go out there, make plays and he has all of the confidence in the world in you, and he knows you can make those plays. It's just been a lot of fun being on his side."

It's not so much fun for the opposition.

Humbled by the Game

On March 18, Chara turned 37 years old. While he is at the top of his game, and his workout regime and work ethic put him in optimal shape, he knows he's not getting any younger.

So, what does he do? He embraces coming to the rink - and being around young players like Hamilton and Krug - even more.

"I really do enjoy that," Chara said, of the hours away from game action, spent on the ice at practice, shooting hundreds of one-timers and tipping hundreds of pucks, giving young defenders advice, and honing his skills.

"As you get older and you’ve been in the league for a while, you don’t realize how much you’re going to maybe miss that part of the game once you’re gone."

"I’m not saying that I’m thinking about being gone or retiring, but I’m kind of realizing that the time is not going to be always there. I enjoy really coming to the rink every day. I enjoy competing in practices against guys and always in the games."

"I love the game. I’ve said it many times — it’s a humbling game and I love everything about it. So, every little part of it, you have to enjoy. You have to have fun and work hard at it, and if you do that, you have no regrets."

"You basically do what you love and it’s much easier than coming to the rink and thinking about, 'Oh my God, I have to do this again,'" he added with a slight smile, briefly laughing at how anyone could have such a thought.

"You always want to look at it in a positive way."

The Captain may win the Norris this June in Las Vegas, and officially hold the title of the top all-around defender in the game; or he may not. Either way, he should be recognized.

Chara doesn't take the game for granted.

We shouldn't take him for granted, either.

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