There is no debating Zdeno Chara’s impact on the Boston Bruins. He helps turn them from a flawed team with potential into a perennial juggernaut. Since he arrived as a free agent in 2006, the Bruins have:
• won the 2011 Stanley Cup and made another final appearance in 2013
• won the 2014 Presidents’ Trophy
• won 10 playoff rounds and 57 playoff games (the fourth-most of any NHL franchise in that time frame)
• broken the 100-point plateau on four occasions (2009, 2011, 2012, 2014)
Meanwhile Chara has:
• won the 2009 Norris Trophy
• been named a first-team NHL all-star twice (2009, 2014) and second-team all-star three times (2008, 2011, 2012)
Between Chara's Norris caliber defending and Patrice Bergeron’s excellent two-way reliability, the Bruins have had arguably the best defensive defenceman and centre combination in the NHL for the past five to 10 years.
But their window is rapidly closing. March 18 marks Chara's 39th birthday and in a league that is proving to be more and more about speed and youth, he may have finally hit a performance wall.
While it has always been clear that performance will decline as players age, NHL organizations struggle to balance a need to lock up high-end performers, while recognizing when those players will drop off.
As the analytics movement has grown, so too has the understanding of how teams have been over-reliant on proxies for defensive skill that have little to no reflection of defensive performance.
For example, plus/minus is highly dependent on offence, goaltending and luck year to year. Shot blocking and hits tend to be seen as indicators of someone who is not possessing the puck, so those stats aren’t automatically indicative of a player who is skilled at regaining the pick, or limiting the opposition’s chances.
We are moving in the direction of analyzing how players impact shot attempt rates against their team when they are on the ice, where those shots are coming from and how dangerous they are.
One crude measurement of how a defender impacts shot attempts against is comparing how their teammates perform with and without them on the ice at 5v5. The logical assumption here is that better defenders will limit attempts against and thus their teammates will allow less when the player in question is on the ice.
The following defenders currently rank in the top 20 amongst the 92 NHL defencemen with 1000-plus minutes at 5v5 in Shot Attempts Against per 60 Relative to their teammates. Most observers would agree that the majority of names on this list belong amongst the elite defenders in the NHL.
|#||Player||Team||GP||TOI||SATA 60||TM SATA 60||SATA60 Rel TM||SAT% Rel TM|
*All data courtesy stats.hockeyanalysis.com*
You’ll notice Chara’s name is not on this list. In fact, he ranks 71st amongst the top 120 defenders in 5v5 TOI in this statistic. If we look at his rankings amongst top-four defenders (approximately the top 120 defencemen in TOI) over the past decade we can see where the decline begins:
|Season||Age||SATA60 Rel TM||Rank||D-men||Percentile|
*data courtesy stats.hockeyanalysis.com*
From 2007-08 to 2012-13 Chara was firmly entrenched as an elite defensive defender, finishing in the top 20 via this defensive measure in three of six years. It should come as no surprise that Chara won the Norris and Boston the Stanley Cup during this time.
If we look at how he’s trended since 2012, the decline becomes obvious. He now ranks in the lower half of top-four defenders in the NHL by this measure. He has gone from an elite shutdown defenceman, to what amounts to probably a second pair defensive defenceman.
If we compare Chara’s decline by age to those of some other defenders of note in recent years we can see how this sort of thing happens as players enter their mid-to-late 30s. Kevin Bieksa and Niklas Kronwall both appear to have peaked defensively at age 28, while Josh Gorges has been in decline since he was 27, so at least Bruins fans can be glad their highest paid player on the blueline staved off decline until he was 34.
Boston has some serious issues on the horizon given their salary cap situation with Torey Krug, Loui Eriksson, Brad Marchand, Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak all heading for free agency this off-season or next. Chara has two years remaining on his contract, with a cap hit slightly above $6.9 million and a full no-movement clause. If they haven't already, Boston needs to begin planning ways to both alleviate the cap crunch and fill the massive void that Chara's decline is leaving on the back end.