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Zdeno Chara's early struggles may force changes to Islanders' defense

Islanders defenseman Zdeno Chara (33) battles with Arizona

Islanders defenseman Zdeno Chara (33) battles with Arizona Coyotes left wing Ryan Dzingel (10) for the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz.  Credit: AP/Ross D. Franklin

Nothing that happens this season for Zdeno Chara, good or bad, will impact his eventual induction into the Hall of Fame. He's a lock.

But the 44-year-old defenseman and the Islanders are not concerned about future honors. They have a Stanley Cup to pursue and the 6-9, 250-pound Chara was signed to round out their top six and provide defensive stability both five-on-five and on the penalty kill.

The early results have been mixed in Chara’s second tenure with the Islanders (3-2-1), who resume their 13-game road trip on Saturday at Nashville and were off for a second straight day on Tuesday.

He’s still a towering presence in the defensive zone but, at times, has struggled to make passes to clear the zone and has not looked strong enough on his skates, often losing physical battles.

As a result, coach Barry Trotz has started to field regular questions about Chara’s performance and whether he needs to be spelled in the lineup and have his on-ice minutes managed. Trotz has staunchly defended Chara.

"We’re going to manage him," Trotz said after Sunday’s 2-0 win at Vegas. "I’ve talked to him, ‘How do you feel?’ He’s doing something that’s incredible. He’s 44. At 44, I can’t even think about playing in this league.

"I’m not worried about him. He’s an elite person and an elite athlete and he’s still very fit for his age. He prepares as well as anybody."

Chara has played 1,614 NHL regular-season games, including 281 to start his career with the Islanders from 1998-2001 before he was traded to the Senators. He can tie Larry Murphy for third place on the NHL’s all-time list for games played among defensemen on Saturday and has a chance to surpass the current leader Chris Chelios (1,651) this season.

He has gone without a point in six games this season – Chara wasn’t brought back to the Islanders for his offense – and is a minus-2. That included a minus-4 in a 5-1 loss at Florida on Oct. 16.

Plus-minus is, admittedly, a flawed statistic.

But, in terms of advanced analytics, Chara has a Corsi for of 38.9%, the lowest among the Islanders’ defensemen. Above 50% indicates a team is controlling the puck the majority of the time. The Islanders’ team Corsi for of 43.49% is ranked 31st in the 32-team league, per NaturalStatTrick.

There are organizational options to either spell or pass Chara on the depth chart.

Sebastian Aho, a perennial prospect who is now 25, is on the roster as a seventh defenseman. Robin Salo, a second-round pick in 2017 in his first North American season, has a goal and three assists in six games for the Islanders’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport and was a standout in training camp. Samuel Bolduc, a second-round pick in 2019, has played two games for Bridgeport after missing the preseason with an injury.

All are lefthanded shots like Chara.

Notes & quotes: Ross Johnston, completing a four-year, $4 million deal, agreed to a four-year, $4.4 million extension . . . Goalie Cory Schneider cleared waivers and can be re-assigned to Bridgeport to clear a roster spot once Semyon Varlamov (injured reserve/soreness) is activated, presumably for Saturday’s game…The AHL named former Islanders general manager Bill Torrey and forward Keith Aucoin to its 2022 Hall of Fame class.

New York Sports