On Thursday, Zdeno Chara set the all-time NHL record for games played by a defenseman. At 1,652 regular season games and counting (unless, as Dom points out, you already were counting the playoff games), Chara will be establishing a mark that will take many, many, many years for someone to break. If some other dude ends up playing over 24 years in the NHL with the durability and conviction of “Big Z,” well, more power to him.
With the celebrating of Chara, we’re about to see many people say many nice things about him, which is not something that the Islanders have seen a lot of this season. Currently in sixth place in the division and with a laundry list of issues on the ice, this is looking like a playoff-free year, which isn’t what Chara (or anyone else) expected when he signed a one-year deal with them over the summer.
Of course, that wasn’t just any random signing. Chara was returning to the team that drafted him a quarter century ago. He played his first 274 NHL games for the Islanders, which is a surprisingly high number for a guy best remembered for the trade that sent him away and, maybe, a classic cover of The Hockey News.
But that number was a portent of things to come. As bad as the Islanders were back then, as awkward as that 6-foot-9 inch body was on the ice, and as misunderstood as he was, Chara was always there. All the while, he was working, learning, getting a little bit better everyday and every game. By the time he was traded to the Senators, he was as solid a defender as there was in the league, and just about to begin his run of dominance.
(Let’s talk about the trade. Again. I maintain to this day that the 2001 deal that sent Chara, forward Bill Muckalt and a first round pick that ended up being used to take Jason Spezza to Ottawa in exchange for Alexei Yashin was not as bad as hindsight makes it look. The Islanders were almost totally devoid of talent at that point and Yashin, at that point a no-doubt first line center, was exactly what they needed. There was no guarantee Chara and Spezza would become what they would and when they did, it made the deal a rare massive win for the Senators. Yashin was massively overpaid by then-owner Charles Wang and a wrist injury derailed what had been a good start to his Islanders tenure. I’m not saying that the deal was “good” in the way that suddenly every movie website has decided that, actually, the Star Wars prequels are “good” when they most definitely are not. I’m just saying that I’ve always understood why it was made. That, and that trading a starting goalie a year into his career for two wingers, one of whom was maddeningly inconsistent, would be much, much worse. Also worse: not trading Chara and Dave Scatchard for Jason Allison and still being pissed about it. Woof.)
Away from the Islanders, Chara blossomed into more than just a defenseman. He was a force of nature that few teams had an answer for. He was very good for Ottawa, but when he left as a free agent for Boston (as the Senators chose to hang on to another former Islander, Wade Redden, instead), Chara emerged as one of the defining players of his era. Strong, smart, mobile, a leader, a winner, as gifted offensively as he was defensively and, most of all, just a shit ton bigger than everyone else. He won his only (really? c’mon...) Norris Trophy, finished second twice, third three times and was an annual participant in the All Star Game and Hardest Shot Competition. He captained the Bruins to three Stanley Cup Finals and their first championship since the Bobby Orr days. He was a hockey player even non-hockey fans knew.
And, amazingly, he rarely ever missed a game. He maintained that level of excellence and power all season-long, game-in and game-out. You couldn’t escape him. If your team was playing the Bruins or Senators, he was gonna be on the ice ready to absolutely ruin your favorite player’s evening. Prime Zdeno Chara was like Dracula, Frankenstein and a Skynet T-800 Terminator all rolled into one.
But time marches on, even for immortal beings. The Bruins chose to let Chara walk as a free agent after 1,023 games in black-and-gold, and he signed a one-year deal with Washington. It was a weird sight after 14 years with the Bruins, but the dude had earned the right to keep playing. Of course, he missed just one game that regular season and played in all five games of the Capitals’ first round series loss to... the Bruins.
I’ve Got to Keep on Chasin’ a Dream
Which brings us to today and Islanders Defenseman Zdeno Chara ver. 2.0. I was admittedly excited about the prospect of the Islanders bringing Chara back this season, not only because of his history with them but because it meant that this sure fire first ballot Hall of Famer saw the Islanders - The New York Islanders - as a team that had a legit shot at winning him another Stanley Cup. Their two runs to the semifinals and Eastern Conference Final had changed their perception around the league. The Islanders had finally become the team they never were when they had Chara the first time.
To say it didn’t exactly worked out the way anyone expected would be a severe understatement. Instead of the Cup contender, Chara instead joined a team that started their season with an interminable road trip, endured multiple COVID outbreaks, lost its way defensively and took the phrase “scoring drought” to a whole new, teamwide, level. They had a chance at the start of the new year to erase that horrific start and make an improbable but not impossible push for the playoffs. But more inconsistency and missed opportunities have scuttled even that, too. The Islanders might not finish the season where they are now, but they most likely will not finish with a playoff berth.
Chara, in all of his greatness and longevity, cannot be absolved from his team’s struggles this season. Not being the force of nature he once was is understandable. But his play has noticeably deteriorated, making him often a liability on the ice. His adjustment period to Barry Trotz’s structure took a long time (again, no doubt blocked by the team’s many starts and stops) and he is considerably slow and sluggish to the eye. Even in his better games this season, it seems like the Islanders are good for at least one two-minute shift stuck in their own zone, and Chara is often at the center of it. The raw strength to ride guys off the puck that he once showed shift after shift is now a rare sight. His once booming slapshot is now a weak flick towards the net that could be called a “shot pass” if you wanted to be generous. Chara isn’t the only reason the Islanders have underwhelmed this season, but he’s definitely among the reasons.
And maybe that’s not on him at all. Hoping he could replace what the younger and more spry Nick Leddy brought to the Islanders was probably too much to ask for. Hoping the Islanders could tread water with Chara before finding an actual Leddy replacement or other upgrade sounds like fanfic at this point. Or maybe we, or at least “maybe I,” just preferred to remember the best of Chara that we witnessed for so many years, even though he is no longer that player.
Sail On, on a Distant Highway
As the Islanders approach the March 21 trade deadline as a seller, I’m of a few minds on what they should do with Chara. When insider Pierre Lebrun says that general managers around the NHL have called about possibly acquiring him, I believe it, knowing how much these HOCKEY MEN value the existential elements Chara can still bring to a club - work ethic, leadership, experience - as much if not more than they do his diminished play on the ice (assuming they’ve even watched the Islanders play this season, which is not a guarantee...). If GM Lou Lamoriello can get even a low draft pick for Chara, it’s in his team’s best interests to do so. Yeah, it’s a single lottery ticket but like the slogan says, you never know. And losing Chara certainly wouldn’t hurt the Islanders on the ice at this stage of the season.
That’s assuming Chara, who, again, has more than earned a say in how his career ends, even wants to pack up and play someplace else for three months. If these two grizzled veterans have a chat about Chara’s future, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he said he would prefer to stay and for Lamoriello to say, “okay.”
But I would be lying if I didn’t say that part of me wants Chara to finish the season with the Islanders before riding off into the sunset. Breaking Chris Chelios’s record for games played by a defenseman and setting a new mark means that we’ll be seeing clips of a 44-year-old Zdeno Chara in an Islanders jersey for the rest of our lives. He’ll be waving to a crowd or getting congratulations from teammates and opponents and maybe even getting some kind of gift like a painted portrait or something. And he’ll be doing that in an orange-and-blue jersey with a map of Long Island on the front.
And when new fans or kids see that, they might ask, “who’s that guy?” And the person next to them will have to tell the entire Chara story all over again, including how the team that he broke the record with was the one that originally drafted and traded him away before bringing him back two decades later for a crappy season everyone just wanted done already. I selfishly want my team to be the final, fitting stop on that tour.
Before now, “New York Islander Zdeno Chara” was known for a bad trade. After this season, new “New York Islander Zdeno Chara” will be known for that, and for breaking a longstanding record that’s the cherry on top of one of the most remarkable and special NHL careers of all time.
As sideways as this season has gone, I’ll take it.