So apologies to Boston Bruins fans. I’m not a Bruins hater (I started watching hockey about the time Robert Gordon Orr started getting paid to play it so I’ve always had a soft spot for them), but living in New England means getting doses of NESN coverage and there’s nothing that makes a thinking person critical as fast as listening to a homer.
But that said … I think Zdeno Chara is a big part of what’s wrong with the Bruins. I don’t mean that he’s lost a step from his already ponderous skating. Having the reach of a battleship goes a long way toward excusing having the turning radius of one and he’s still strong, mean and a good positional player. I mean his leadership.
Now maybe in the rest of the hockey world there’s been more questioning of the on-ice leadership of the Bruins than here in the Northeast, but the local coverage has pretty much focused on the usual breathless (and uninformed) debate over whether the coach is getting fired. I’m agnostic on that one, btw: Claude Julien won a Cup with a goalie playing like Mad Etta from W.P. Kinsella’s The Fencepost Chronicles. (Mad Etta was the medicine woman of the Ermineskin tribe in Kinsella’s short stories. Pressed into action as the goalie for the local hockey team in a tournament on the grounds she weighed 400 pounds and so filled the net (think Devan Dubnyk, only shorter), she quickly tired of the shots hurting her, so she weaved a few charms and the pucks stopped hitting her — or going in the net). Although that’s possibly less magical than Julien getting Boston’s jingoistic fan base to forgive him for being French. Against that success is a series of late-season & playoff failure.
But nobody seems to be calling out the on-ice leadership of a team that for years has failed to win the Big Game down the stretch. Since Chara took over as captain in 2006-07, here’s how the Bruins finished their seasons:
06-07 They were a last place team, finishing up the year on a 1-10-1 run that really only affected their draft place.
07-08 Lost to Montreal in Game 7, first round.
08-09 Won first round 4-0, lost to Carolina in Game 7, second round.
09-10 Won first round, 4-2, lost to Philadelphia in Game 7, second round.
11-12 Won President’s Trophy, lost to Washington in Game 7, first round.
13-14 Won first round, 4-2, lost to Montreal in Game 7, second round.
14-15 Lost their last three games to finish three points behind Ottawa, which won its last three (and six of seven) for the last playoff spot.
15-16 Lost three of last four games (including a rousing 6-1 home defeat in their final game) to miss the playoffs by a single point.
You’ll note I skipped over two seasons. in 2012-13, the Bruins famously came from behind in the third period of Game 7 to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs (ouch). Lost in the noise was the fact the Bruins had home ice, finishing just one point behind Montreal for the division title and were overwhelming favorites, especially once they went 3-1 up in the series. Were it not for that one great period, this would have gone down as one of the biggest choke jobs in the entire string. Instead, the went on a run, making the Finals where, with a chance to force Game 7 and under two minutes to play, they gave up two goals in 17 seconds. Hey, it made Dave Bolland a crapton of money as a free agent.
And of course they won it all in 2010-11, but it’s worth asking if that’s because of Chara’s leadership or Tim “Mad Etta” Thomas in goal.
But teams win games and lose games. The thing that has always bothered me about Chara was how the Bruins violate the cardinal rule of hockey teams: What happens in the room stays in the room.
Boston traded away Tyler Seguin, Phil Kessel and Dougie Hamilton, and each time the team let it leak that the player had “character issues.” It’s bad enough when a front office type says something like that, but when the captain stands up publicly and disses a former teammate (teammates in this case), I think that says as much about the captain’s leadership as it does about the supposed bad apples.
Kessel, at 19, underwent surgery for cancer, played 70 games as a rookie and won the Masterton Trophy for dedication to hockey. He then increased his point totals successive seasons, and led the Bruins with 36 goals in his third and final season there before being run out of town as a 21-year-old. Yet Chara says the Bruins did everything they could for him. Bullshit. Kessel doesn’t look like a workout maniac, yet he has played every game in 7 of his 10 NHL seasons, reportedly finished at or near the top of the Leafs fitness tests every year and was easily team USA’s best skater at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Having not learned their lesson (in part because Toronto gifted them with the second overall pick in the Kessel trade), the Bruins then ran that pick, Seguin, out of town as a 21-year-old after three seasons. The knock on him was that he didn’t produce in the playoffs, which was true in 12-13. In 11-12, however, he finished with three goals in seven games, which put him ahead of David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron combined. So a 21-year-old maybe didn’t work as hard as he should have in the weight room or maybe stayed out too late and he definitely had a bad playoff. But then management — with the captain’s public support — scapegoated him. Double bullshit. Predictably, they did it again with Hamilton.
And the Boston media, who with the exception of Fluto Shinzawa don’t strike me as the hardest-working crew ever, are always happy to play along. This is especially true when it comes to maintaining the old Big Bad Bruins / Don Cherry image of a lunch pail team (although Cherry, not a moron despite his persona, was happy to pick up Rick Middleton as a 22-year-old for his team and if there’s one player Kessel reminds me of, it’s Nifty Middleton: Great skater, great goal-scorer, pudgy, lackadaisical checker and positional nightmare.)
Good teams find ways to work all kinds of players in. Great captains teach 20-year-olds how to play and act like pros, on and off the ice. Crappy captains call out 20-year-olds publicly.
Look, without being a player on the team, nobody knows how a guy is as a teammate, or a captain. But from the record I have to say that from this distance, Chara looks like a crappy captain.