When Zdeno Chara chuckles that his game is not as “sexy” as that of fellow Norris Trophy candidate Erik Karlsson, the 6-foot-9 giant with the villainous stubble on his face and the burning fire in his eyes makes a great point.
Artistic merit, after all, hardly comes to mind while watching Chara ragdoll and manhandle most opponents who dare come his way.
While Karlsson woos the voters with some well-earned hustle, Chara’s forte is based on raw muscle.
Sitting beside the Bruins captain inside the dressing room at the TD Garden, you actually see a different, lighthearted side of hockey’s most intimidating figure. Behind these doors, he is laughing and flashing an infectious smile that is rarely witnessed by fans who eye him battling against the other team’s top forwards each and every night.
The conversation is about the exploits of the young Karlsson, who has exploded this season with a flair and panache rarely seen from a 21 year old. Even Chara readily admits that anyone voting for the Norris Trophy, which goes to the NHL’s top defenceman, would be naive if they did not list the Ottawa Senators blue liner among the frontrunners for the award when their ballots are submitted at the conclusion of the regular season in three weeks.
“There is a lot of talk right now about the ‘points-guy’ style and Karlsson has been impressive, no doubt about it,” Chara told the Toronto Sun. “Watching him play, he’s very smooth, very confident and makes good offensive decisions.
“But I’m not like him in terms of being a scorer. Obviously my style out on the ice is not as sexy as his. None of that matters so long as I can blanket the other team’s best players.”
There’s the rub in this Norris debate, in the humble opinion of yours truly.
In the end, Karlsson does not get enough credit for his defensive play and has not deserved some of the criticism he has received from those who don’t see him play every day about his alleged deficiencies in his own end.
At the same time, no one in the sport can completely shut down the opposition’s top guns like Zdeno Chara.
Hockey Night in Canada analyst Craig Simpson, a one-time 43-goal scorer in the National Hockey League who went on to become an assistant coach with the Edmonton Oilers, made that point in front of a national television audience during a 4-1 Bruins win over the Maple Leafs in Boston back on Dec. 3.
As the raucous Garden crowd was mocking their favourite whipping boy, Phil Kessel, a stat was shown indicating what a tough time Kessel was having collecting points against his former Bruins club, especially in Boston. It was agreed that a lot of his sputtering production had to do with Chara’s constant shadowing of the Leafs winger all over the ice
“Chara doesn’t just do it to Kessel. He goes up against all the top guys in the league and has that same effect,” Simpson said. “Go ask the Sedins what it was like in the final last year. He did it to them at the most important time of year.”
In the end, the Sedin twins, back-to-back winners of the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s scoring champion, combined for only four points in the series, won by the Bruins in seven games. Everywhere they went, Chara followed. It wasn’t fun for the personable Henrik and Daniel Sedin, that’s for sure.
Based on evidence like that, it says here that no free agent in the post-lockout era has had more of a impact on the ice than Chara, whether it be shift to shift or over the long haul.
Chara, of course, left the Senators in 2006 to join the Bruins.
“I believe I fill every aspect of the game,” Chara said. “I’m an all-around defenceman. I kill penalties, play the power play, drop the gloves, whatever needs to be done. And I refused to be outworked.”
At the start of play Saturday, Chara was fifth in the league in plus-minus at plus-24 and was seventh in scoring among defencemen with 42 points. That Karlsson, who is a solid plus-17 himself, is far and away the leading point-getter among blueliners with 71, is a testament of why this kid deserves to get serious Norris consideration.
To that end, young Mr. Karlsson can expect a top-three vote from this ink-stained wretch, along with ones for Chara and Nashville’s Shea Weber. But when all is said and done, it will be Chara who gets the nod here as the league’s top defenceman.
Ask Craig Simpson.
Ask Phil Kessel.
Ask the Sedins.
While it’s a shame there is no accompanying John Bonham-type drumroll, here are this columnist’s picks to collect the NHL’s top hardware for the 2011-12 regular season:
Hart (MVP) Evgeni Malkin, Penguins
With Sid the Kid sidelined for a good chunk of the season, Malkin has carried the offensive load for the Pens ... Leads NHL with 87 points in just 63 games, an impressive 1.38 points per game ... Others deserving consideration include F Steven Stamkos (Lightning), F Claude Giroux (Flyers), D Erik Karlsson (Sens), D Zdeno Chara (Bruins), G Pekka Rinne (Nashville) and G Henrik Lundqvist (New York).
Vezina (Goalie) Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers
As of Saturday, his outstanding goals-against average (1.88), save percentage (.935) and wins (32) speak for themselves ... Don’t be surprised if Nashville’s Pekka Rinne makes a hard charge at the award. If this guy played in a bigger media market, fans outside of Nashville would know how good he is.
Norris (Defenceman) Zdeno Chara, Bruins
Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson will give the Boston captain a run for his money. He’s a special talent ... Nashville’s Shea Weber deserves consideration too.
Jack Adams (Coach) Paul MacLean, Senators
The Man with The ’Stach has done an incredible job. Hand up those of you who thought the Sens would challenge for a divison title, let alone make the playoffs. Didn’t think so ... The most difficult award to call because of all the outstanding candidates ... Ken Hitchcock has done miracles in St. Louis since taking over in November ... Alain Vigneault (Canucks), Dan Bylsma (Pens), John Tortorella (Rangers), Claude Julien (Bruins) and Mike Babcock (Red Wings) have gotten the most out of their talented sides ... Barry Trotz (Predators) and Dave Tippett (Coyotes) have done miracles with limited payrolls ... Peter DeBoer (Devils), Kevin Dineen (Panthers) and Glen Gulutzan (Stars) have done great jobs in the first season of guiding their respective teams.
Calder (Rookie) Gabriel Landeskog, Avs
With key cogs like Matt Duchene having fought injuries all season, this former Kitchener Rangers has answered the bell en route to helping the Avs stay in post-season contention ... Oilers F Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has impressed, but has missed time due to injury.
Selke (Defensive Forward) Ryan Kesler, Canucks
In the words of one opponent we talked to: “He’s the toughest #$@#&*! forward to play against.” Enough said ... Gunning for his second consecutive Selke.
Lady Byng (Sportsmanship) Patrice Bergeron, Bruins
He’s second in team scoring, is second in the NHL in plus-minus at plus-36, has just 20 penalty minutes and is a former Stanley Cup winner. All this from a guy who suffered a career-threatening concussion in the fall of 2007, one that left him sitting in a dark room wondering if he could ever live a normal life again.
In a league full of parity, the Pittsburgh Penguins are starting to emerge as the frontrunners for the Stanley Cup.
Saturday’s 5-2 win in New Jersey was the team’s 11th consecutive victory, 10 of which have come with Marc-Andre Fleury between the pipes.
Up front, Evgeni Malkin leads the league in scoring and Sidney Crosby has five assists in the two games he’s been back in the lineup. This team is on such a roll, even bad boy Matt Cooke has four goals in two games.
Back in early October, the published pick in this space to win the Stanley Cup was Pittsburgh, the belief being that the potential return of Crosby would make the Penguins the most complete team in the league.
We’re not so sure that Chicago will be able to complete our prediction of a Pens-Hawks final. As far as the Pens are concerned, well, we told you so.
Of course, by writing this, we may have doomed No. 87 and Co. to a first-round exit. r