Three Periods: Chara powers up; Habs' leadership shift; NHL notes

Three Periods: Chara powers up; Habs' leadership shift; NHL notes

Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include a “major” change by Zdeno Chara, the real-world impact of the Canadiens’ leadership change and notes on Daniel Alfredsson, Tyler Myers, Brian Campbell, Dallas Eakins, Jason Spezza, Scott Hartnell & more.

FIRST PERIOD: Zdeno Chara makes ‘major’ change as he tries to remain a force

Zdeno Chara came up with a plan after the Boston Bruins lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs. General manager Peter Chiarelli said he decided to “tweak his training.” Chara said he did more than tweak it.

“The summer,” Chara said, “was major.”

Chara has always worked hard. He has had to. He is 6-foot-9, and this is hockey, not basketball. His size is a disadvantage as much as an advantage. He turned himself from a project drafted in the third round into a winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman.

Now he has to work differently. He has to move his 255 pounds in a game that is getting faster and faster, and he has to stop – or at least slow – the inevitable decline of every athlete. He’s 37 years old.

Up to now, much of the focus has been on fatigue.

At 37, Chara is trying to slow his inevitable decline by speeding up his game. (USA Today)
At 37, Chara is trying to slow his inevitable decline by speeding up his game. (USA Today)

The Bruins barely reduced Chara’s ice time last season, from an average of 24:56 in 2012-13 to 24:39 in 2013-14. But they put him in front of the net instead of at the point on the power play, so he wouldn’t have to skate back, retrieve the puck and lug it up ice as often.

They dramatically reduced his ice time in the playoffs, from an average of 29:32 in 2013, when they made the Stanley Cup Final, to 25:20 in 2014, when they lost in the second round. They have cut his ice time even more in the early going this season. He played between 21:17 and 22:43 in the first four games, before playing 28:08 through three periods and overtime Wednesday night.

But it isn’t just about endurance. It’s about explosiveness.

The season is a marathon, but it isn’t one long run. It is a series of sprints, a series of shifts. Chara used to do long-distance cycling and running. He used to do a lot of heavy weightlifting. He won’t detail what he did over the summer, but he said he did more hockey-specific exercises. He trained in shorter bursts.

“Hockey, in general, is so hard to train for,” Chara said. “In the summer we all take a break from the ice. You try to replace it either by running, biking or doing other stuff. But you go back to the ice and training camp, and it feels so awkward.”

When Chara returned to training camp this year, he felt good. His fitness test results are usually outstanding, but this time, despite his age, they actually improved. His running was faster. His vertical jump was higher. His pull-ups went from 31 to 35.

“The power metrics jumped,” Chiarelli said.

Chara looks slow because of his size. Teams try to tire him out by making him skate. It’s not just Montreal, though the speedy Canadiens are a particularly troublesome matchup for the Bruins. It’s not going to stop.

But with less ice and more power, maybe Chara can be efficient and remain a force.

SECOND PERIOD: The real-world impact of the Canadiens’ leadership change

Brendan Gallagher broke into the NHL when he was 20 years old, and he broke into the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens – the most storied team, the most intense market. He lived with Josh Gorges for his first two seasons, sleeping in the basement of Gorges’ home, riding to and from the rink in Gorges’ car.

The Habs are looking to their young players to pick up the leadership mantle. (AP)
The Habs are looking to their young players to pick up the leadership mantle. (AP)

Day by day, game by game, he learned how to be a pro. He learned how to be a Hab. When he was down, Gorges would pick him up. When he was up, Gorges would knock him down a peg.

“There were times where I’d think I played a good game – a couple goals or a couple points – and then I’d sit in the car and he’d remember one turnover from the first period,” Gallagher said, smiling. “That’s the first thing he’d say. But it was good. It kept me humble, and it made me a better player, and that’s something that I appreciate.”

Gorges is gone now, and this is the kind of thing that makes leadership a real theme for the 2014-15 Canadiens. In this blooming era of analytics, leadership is being devalued at times, along with things like character and grit – the intangibles. But leadership can have a real-world effect.

Leadership occasionally is grand gestures – speeches, heroics. But mostly it’s little things – mentorship. It’s setting examples and teaching lessons and demanding accountability on a daily basis and personal level, not just about hockey, but about life. Most players left home as teenagers, and when they arrive in the NHL, they’re given money, fame and responsibility at a young age. Their main influences are their teammates.

The Canadiens beat the Bruins and went to the Eastern Conference final last season. Even then, they had some maturing to do. They got caught up in the emotion of overcoming their archrival, pounded their chests and weren’t ready to play the New York Rangers, getting blown out in Game 1.

Then GM Marc Bergevin made hard decisions in the off-season. Bergevin offered 35-year-old captain Brian Gionta a one-year deal; Gionta signed a three-year, $12.75 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres. Bergevin traded Gorges to Buffalo. Gorges, an alternate captain, was turning 30 but already starting to decline with four years and $15.6 million left on his contract. Best to trade him while he still had value and open up roles for younger players.

“In the NHL, you have to be ready to make that turnaround,” said Habs coach Michel Therrien. “We’re a young team. We’re a quick team. We have a vision about where we wanted to be and how we want to play the game, and we just keep moving in that direction.”

Now Gionta is wearing the ‘C’ and Gorges an ‘A’ for the Sabres. No one is wearing the ‘C’ and four players are wearing an ‘A’ for the Canadiens – Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Markov, Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban. Goalie Carey Price and veterans like Manny Malhotra, Travis Moen and Brandon Prust will play important roles, too.

The Canadiens, Gionta said, must make sure “there’s no lag between that leadership group. You’ve got young guys as far as leadership in the room. Like, a Gallagher, he’s going to be ready in a few years, but he’s not there yet. You need to rely on your Prices, Plekanecs and Moens to kind of carry the load until those guys are ready.”

It’s going to be a process, in more ways than one. Gallagher just got his own place for the first time.

“It’s a new challenge for me,” he said, smiling.

THIRD PERIOD: Notes from around the NHL

— The Detroit Red Wings want to do the right thing. They want to give Daniel Alfredsson all the time he needs to decide on retirement so he has no regrets. But even if his back felt good now, they would question whether it could hold up the entire season and into the playoffs – not just so he could play, but so he could be effective. It didn’t last season.

The Wings might be interested in Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, but at what price? (USA Today)
The Wings might be interested in Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, but at what price? (USA Today)

— The Wings have interest in Tyler Myers. They scouted him heavily last season, sending Chris Chelios to see him at one point. They need a right-shot defenseman. It’s hard to acquire someone with his talent and size (6-foot-8), especially at his age (24). To do that, you probably have to accept some warts and pay a high price. Problem is, the Wings have not drafted high for years and put a premium on the promising young players they have found and developed. They do not want to part with a Gustav Nyquist or an Anthony Mantha.

— Brian Campbell? He’d fit the Wings well in terms of skill. The Wings have never been afraid of age. But he’s a left shot, and he’s 35, and he has two years left on his contract at a cap hit of $7.14 million. They can’t be willing to pay a high price.

— A common complaint about the Wings: They’re sneaky-good at interference. “They’re entitled to their ice. That’s not a problem,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “When you use your arms or your stick to slow people down, that’s what’s got to be called. … That’s what that team is all about, and they do a good job with it, and they seem to get away with most of it.”

— Jason Spezza has been impressed by the Dallas Stars. “The professionalism of the organization has really exceeded my expectations,” he said. After 11 seasons with the Ottawa Senators, he’s enjoying playing in a market where hockey isn’t everything. “It’s been nice for me to just kind of get away from things at the rink,” he said. “That aspect is kind of probably what I was looking for.”

— Spezza isn’t ready to talk contract yet, though. He’s in the last year of his deal. “At this point I want to take some time,” he said. “You have to get familiar with the surroundings. You have to make sure you’re making the right decision and I’m the right fit for the team and they’re the right fit for me. I imagine it’s kind of a two-way street, too.”

— The Oilers are 0-3-1 and have been outscored 23-11. This team has holes at center and on defense, and the goaltending has been a mess. But keep an eye on coach Dallas Eakins. He came in as the hot, up-and-coming coach last season and was humbled, finishing last in the West. He made an effort to learn and adjust. “I have a lot of respect for Dallas,” said winger Taylor Hall before the season. “But I think he’s a guy that … We all weren’t good enough last year. Across the board, everyone wasn’t good enough. So just like I took a look in the mirror, so did he. I think that’s a good thing for a coach to admit, and hopefully it helps us out next year.” The very early returns are not good.

— Not long ago, Scott Hartnell was on a line with Claude Giroux and Jaromir Jagr. Now? He’s skating with Artem Anisimov and Alexander Wennberg. “That’s one thing that went through my head, too,” said Hartnell, whom the Philadelphia Flyers traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in June. “You’re playing with one of the best centers in the world the last three, four years with Giroux. It’s tough to say goodbye to a centerman like that. But you’ve got to look ahead and not behind, and we’ve got some good guys up the middle.”

— Hartnell signed a six-year, $28.5 million deal with a no-move clause in 2013 thinking he would retire in Philly, only to be forced out by new GM Ron Hextall. Not only did he go from a large market to a small one, from a city he loved to one he didn’t know, he became the elder statesman. At 32, he’s the oldest guy on the Blue Jackets roster. “It was a real tough experience, but everything happens for a reason,” Hartnell said. “We’ve got a great young group here. … It’s not only being good now, but in a few years, these guys are going to be better and better.”

— Tweet of the week: Ryan Whitney, who won a silver medal with the United States in 2010, after signing with Sochi of the KHL: “4 years ago after the Vancouver Olympics my goal was Sochi 2014…It’s always satisfying when you reach your goals.”