Sunday, 18 August 2013

Zdeno Chara is no longer the dominant defenceman he once was.

I came across a list by a contributor on social media of his Top 10 NHL players, and he listed Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin, Steven Stamkos and Pavel Datsyuk 1 through 4, which is hard to argue, but then puts in Zdeno Chara at #5.  Which troubles me greatly.  Zdeno Chara as the 5th best current NHL'er.

I'll admit that it's very difficult for me to be objective about him, first because he's a Bruin, and second because of his psychopathic-criminal behaviour on the ice.  There is the mendacious explanations after his great crimes too, he's in a league with Andrew Ference in that department.  After his botched assassination of Max Pacioretty, he tried to pretend that he didn't know who he was driving head first into the glass with a butt-end, and that he wasn't even aware where he was on the ice.  When he got caught on video deviously yet brazenly slugging Sidney Crosby right in his surgically-repaired jaw, the very first game that Sid played after removing his face shield, he dissembled, and tried to argue with the reporter questioning him, challenging him to prove that it was his arm doing the punching.  These are the ravings of a deeply troubled, insecure man who is a menace to others and himself.

Further, that his behaviours have been tacitly endorsed by the NHL has harmed his reputation.  A lot of the furor about these incidents is due to the fact that he got off scot-free.  If he'd been given a token suspension, most people would have resigned themselves that it was concordant with the NHL's already dubious record of effective discipline in incidents like these, and would have moved on.  In fact, by looking the other way and enabling him and the Bruins, they didn't allow him to wipe the slate clean.  He still wears his crimes and is diminished by them, instead of being absolved of them, he's almost like O.J. walking around a free man after the 'Not Guilty' verdict.

Another difficulty I have with evaluating his play is that I can't be objective about him while he's playing either.  I block my ears and chant "La la la la la la ..." when an announcer waxes elegiac on what a sportsman he is, a competitor, blah blah blah, I stop listening.  And when I don't actively ignore him on the ice, I watch for instances when he fails and his team gets scored on and he looks all downcast and despondent while I dance a jig in my living room and high-five my poster of Yvon Lambert.  So I don't follow him throughout a game and try to objectively, critically evaluate him, like I would with Dustin Byfuglien or Drew Doughty or Martin St. Louis.  I'm just ready to criticize him, at the drop of a puck.

So with that disclaimer, I'll still argue that to rate Zdeno Chara #5 on a list of top NHL players is much, much too high, in 2013.  There may have been a time four or five years ago when he was that good, but not no more.  No way no how.  With any parameter you use.  Not with "The player I'd most like to start building a franchise with...", he's too old.  Not with point production, he's easily outclassed by a handful of other defencemen in that department.  Not with all-around excellence, he scuffles and boots the play too often these last couple of seasons.  

The icetime argument is problematic.  While it's a good indicator, it's not as precise as we'd like, since it's influenced by factors like coaching decisions, and the quality of the other defencemen on a particular player's team.  If your #3-6 defencemen are pretty good, you don't need to rely so much on your #1 and won't deploy him quite as much as if they stunk.  Using P.K. as another illustration, his icetime didn't match the quality of his play, but there were reasons why the coaching staff did that.  That doesn't mean to me that he played less excellently than Zdeno Chara last season, quite the contrary.  Mr. Chara regularly goofed or gaffed or tripped or got caught out of position or lost a corner battle in the few games I watched him play, whereas P.K.'s mistakes were few and far between.  I remember the one OT game when he went for a big hit in the neutral zone and lost the game as a result, but that's maybe it.  So the fact that he had more icetime than P.K. doesn't mean to me that he's better.

His great size is another reason trotted out to claim that he's the best defenceman, and at one time that may have been true.  He was unbelievably big and strong, and his long reach changed passing lanes, but I think now it's starting to play against him.  He can't anymore overcome the obstacles faced by a man of his great bulk when it comes to agility or mobility.  He's regularly outskated and caught flat-footed now.

Randy Johnson was another player whose freakish size presented great challenges to the opposition, in terms of velocity and release angle and movement on the ball.  It was also a great challenge to him, in that it took him a comparative long time to get his big body coordinated and under control.  Once he did, he was a dominant pitcher for years, until age slowly caught up to him, he lost a little something off his fastball, injuries crept in, and he wasn't as effective anymore.  Still freakishly big, still intimidating as all heck, but not the Cy Young winner he had been.

Manute Bol is a further example of a player whose height presented other teams with a great difficulty.  I'm not basketball expert, but the story was that at 7'7", he presented opposition shooters with a problem they'd never been faced with.  His long arms interdicted certain shots, either in terms of blocks, or in ensuring that a shot wasn't even attempted.  Teams would set up as usual, pass the ball around and get to a point where usually they'd have a makeable shot, but Mr. Bol's presence in the paint prevented that, and thwarted what they'd normally do.  Again, however, once injuries limited his mobility even further, they found a way to work around that, and his effectiveness became even more limited.

So the fact that Zdeno Chara is tall and big isn't enough for us to just outright him the Norris Trophy.  Sure, he's still a formidable challenge, but it's a solvable problem.  

One way Goliath can be slain is with a slew of Davids who skate him into the ground, outracing him to the puck, and stickhandling around him, darting to where he ain't, making him move.  We've seen that a lot from the Canadiens, from Brian Gionta and David Desharnais and Tomas Plekanec and others, who run circles around him and confuse him and tie him up in knots in his own gangly limbs.  This has always been the case, but lately he has seemed even more vulnerable to that attack.

More surprisingly, the Leafs and the Blackhawks tried to beat him with physical play and pure size and strength, attacking him strength on strength, in effect attempting a frontal assault instead of looking for a flanking manoeuvre.  And it was remarkably effective.  

In the 2010 playoffs, I remember Mathieu Darche trying to hit Zdeno Chara three or four times behind his net, and the RDS crew noted his great courage and heart, but the results spoke for themselves, he just bounced off, and looked like he got the worst of that collision every time.  Pierre Houde quickly advised that hitting Zdeno Chara was a waste of time, he was too big and strong, immune to any consequences, you were wasting your time by doing so, you might as well direct your efforts in another manner instead of beating your head against a concrete wall.  And either Mathieu heard this, or the coaching staff heard this, or they came to this same conclusion independently, because after a couple of games nobody really tried to hit him.  

This year though, Randy Carlyle had a really smart insight when he decided that if he was going to give Colton Orr six to eight minutes of icetime, it might as well be focused in the right direction, and he told his boy to not worry about puck handling or passing or backchecking or anything like that, since he can't do any of these things anyway, and instead cruise around and wait for an opportunity to hit Zdeno Chara.  And that's what he did, just lurk around until the puck ended up in Mr. Chara's corner, and then he'd attempt to paste him to the boards.  Now Mr. Orr got a few clean licks in, missed more than that, and it's not like he blew Zdeno Chara up or anything, but it got him thinking and worrying, got him frazzled and frustrated, despite Glenn Healy's wrong-headed and misinformed claims that he is unperturbed by being bodychecked.  

In fact, Zdeno Chara has played his entire career under the previous conditions, where he's the biggest baddest guy around, and where nobody hits him, so he's never had to worry about pain or playing with his head up or about having to rush a pass or clear around the boards before he got pasted.  He got used to that, and this year when these conditions changed it troubled him and got him off his game to have to worry about Colton Orr, and later against the 'Hawks about Brian Bickell.  This is a new development, and I believe every other team saw it and will use that strategy.  George Parros will be told to play it the same way, try to stay in the area where Mr. Chara is, that's your first concern in the offensive zone, and when he's near the boards try to hit him.  You'll miss a lot, you'll not win every hit, but just having him worry about it will throw him off his normal game, where he's above such considerations.

Another book in the Zdeno Chara Bible is about his fearsome shot, and what a weapon that is.  Now it might be going against the grain, but I don't think his slapshot is all it's cracked up to be.  

He has never scored more than 19 goals in a season, and starting from the 2009-10 season has notched 7 (tied for 37th among defencemen), 14 (tied for 6th), 12 (tied for 6th), and 7 (shortened season, tied for 14th) goals.  Admittedly, these are excellent, All-Star totals, but they're not head and shoulders above everyone else's.  Which indicates that while the shot is intimidating, it's not the advantage that we're being led to believe it is.  It's like the Big Bertha or the V-2 rocket, weapons that struck fear in the hearts of the Allies and the civilian populations, but ultimately proved to be limited in their scope and not the game-changers they might have have been thought of as.  In effect, Zdeno Chara's slapshot is unbeatable during the All-Star game, but not in game situations.

Another indication of its lack of potency is the toothless Bruins powerplay over the last few years.  They've been searching for answers and can't get it to click, despite being able to throw out scorers like Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, and Nathan Horton, centres Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, and hulking forwards like Milan Lucic and even Shawn Thornton to stand in front of the net.  You'd think that having Zdeno Chara stand back there with that howitzer would generate goals, but it doesn't, and sometimes they put him in as a forward in desperation, or he goes from the blue line and goes behind the net to battle for the puck.  These are not the hallmarks of a defencemen with that great a shot.  

So taken together, I don't believe that Zdeno Chara is that great a defenceman anymore.  He's clearly the Bruins' #1, he's still an All-Star and a guy you have to game-plan for, a guy that's impossible to 'match up' against, but his powers are diminishing, there are thermal exhaust ports riddling that Death Star.  

Further, I think we as Canadiens fans have Bruins issues.  We have inferiority complexes when it comes to Zdeno Chara being immune to the wizened, vestigial arm of the law, and as regards Milan Lucic's crushing dismemberments of our physical defencemen.  It causes us to inflate the importance and merit of the Bruins players, and Mr. Chara.  Conversely, we rarely get to watch players like Shea Weber and Drew Doughty, being in the Western Conference and getting little exposure on Canadian TV.  

So is Zdeno Chara a Top 5 defenceman.  Probably, for another year or two.  Is he a Top Twenty NHL'er?  M'okay....  But I think saying he's the best player after Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos and Pavel Datsyuk is massively inflating his importance and worth.  

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