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Analysis: Chara loss hurts, doesn't destroy Bruins

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

Before anyone starts planning the Boston Bruins' funeral because Zdeno Chara's knee injury will keep him out of the lineup for four to six weeks, if not more, how about a little perspective.

The Tampa Bay Lightning made the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season despite not having Steven Stamkos in the lineup for 45 games. The Detroit Red Wings made the playoffs last season even though Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk each missed 37 games.

The Lightning and Red Wings overcame those significant losses because they're deep, talented, well-coached teams. They overcame because players who formerly were considered prospects stepped up to become full-time contributors.

Zdeno Chara
Defense - BOS
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 3
SOG: 28 | +/-: -2
In the case of the Lightning it was Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, who were second and third, respectively, in the voting for the Calder Trophy last season. In the case of the Red Wings it was Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Tatar. Nyquist scored 28 goals in 57 games.

Similar to the Lightning and Red Wings, the Bruins are a deep, talented, well-coached team. They're arguably deeper and more talented than Tampa Bay and Detroit were last season, even without Chara in the lineup.

Boston still has one of, if not the best, goalie in the NHL, Tuukka Rask. He may be off to a slow start (2.91 goals-against average, .880 save percentage in six starts), but Rask's track record is too strong to believe he'll continue at this slow pace.

The Bruins still have one of, if not the best, two-way centers in the NHL, Patrice Bergeron. They are particularly deep at center with Bergeron, David Krejci, Carl Soderberg and Gregory Campbell. Chris Kelly can play in the middle too.

It doesn't seem likely that in the Eastern Conference a number of teams are going to start pulling away from the pack between now and December, when Chara is estimated to return provided the injury heals and surgery is not required, as general manager Peter Chiarelli said Friday.

If Chara is out on the long end of the recovery timetable he would be coming back into the lineup Dec. 6 against the Arizona Coyotes.

The Bruins are off to a slow start at 4-5-0, but as long as they stay close to the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference while Chara is out of the lineup they should have enough time to make a second-half push to solidify a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Last season the Columbus Blue Jackets were five points out of a playoff spot in early December and made it into the postseason.

"If we become that bad of a team because of one player, it's not a real good sign for our hockey club," Bruins coach Claude Julien said.

But that "one player" for the Bruins isn't any ordinary player. Chara is the Bruins' biggest advantage; one no other team can come close to matching. Losing him for however long means they lose that advantage. And it's a huge advantage, literally and figuratively.

Chara might be the most irreplaceable player in the League because of his unique combination of size (6-foot-9, 255 pounds), power, skill and stamina.

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Part of the reason the Lightning and Red Wings survived, even thrived, without Stamkos, Datsyuk and Zetterberg last season is because they're forwards who play 20 minutes per game or less. Their talent, skill and leadership couldn't be replaced, but there was a next-man-up philosophy that was easier to have because of the position they play.

That philosophy can't be duplicated in Boston because Chara can play half the game, in all situations, against the opposition's best forwards. There is no one else in the NHL who plays like Chara, who even plays in front of the net on the power play.

In the case of Tampa Bay and Detroit, coaches Jon Cooper and Mike Babcock could work with the younger players and simplify the offense, the forecheck, the attacks through the neutral zone, so they could be effective because of the skill of Palat, Johnson, Nyquist, Sheahan and Tatar.

Julien isn't going to change the forecheck because Chara is out of the lineup. He's not going to simplify the offense. He can't change how the Bruins defend because that will throw everyone else off kilter; it would be the worst thing he could do.

However, the Bruins can survive the loss of Chara if Dougie Hamilton proves he's ready for increased minutes as a No. 1 defenseman, and if Torey Krug shows he's as dynamic from the blue line against first and second lines instead of third and fourth lines.

Neither of those are guarantees because each player is unproven.

Hamilton has shown positive signs, playing 21:39 per game, mostly against top lines, and in all situations, including 54 defensive-zone starts at even strength, according to War-on-Ice.com. But he's been somewhat sheltered in those minutes because he's been playing alongside Chara.

Krug's dynamism has been on display already this season, but he's been given that chance by starting 58 shifts in the offensive zone at even strength, as opposed to 33 in the defensive zone and 29 in the neutral zone.

Asking Dennis Seidenberg to do more is difficult because he's coming off a major knee operation and he's already playing more than 20 minutes per game. Seidenberg will play hard minutes (he leads Boston with 64 defensive-zone starts at even strength) and throw his body around, but Julien can't expect him to all of a sudden be a 25-minute-per-game defenseman.

Asking Adam McQuaid to do more might result in diminishing returns. As it is he's playing 19:31 per game; he's never averaged more than 16:02 per game in a season, and that was last season when he was limited to 30 games because of injury.

Chara's injury also could force Chiarelli to take a deeper look at the trade market to land a right wing who could play with Krejci and Milan Lucic. Though that won't solve the Chara issue, it could resolve Boston's other major problem and have a domino effect.

The Bruins haven't had a steady right wing to play with Milan Lucic and Krejci the way they did with Nathan Horton when they won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and got back to the Final in 2013, and last season with Jarome Iginla. It's part of the reason they've only been able to sustain a heavy forecheck that wears down the opposition in spurts. That's a big reason they've have had some issues keeping momentum in games.

The Bruins have outscored the opposition 8-6 in the first period this season, but have been outscored 17-13 in the second and third periods, including 11-7 in the second.

If Chiarelli can solve the first-line right-wing problem it could help the Bruins' offensive attack for the entire game, thereby taking some pressure off of the back end, which would be a major benefit for a group trying to make up for the loss of an irreplaceable player.

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