Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series. After the historic 2016 NHL Free Agency period, it’s a good time to look at the best free agent signing in the history of all 30 NHL franchises. Up first: The all-time best Boston Bruins free agent signing.
The All-Time Best Boston Bruins Free Agent Signing
2006 – Zdeno Chara: Five years, $37.5 million
The 6’9″ Chara, a Slovakian defenseman who holds the distinction of being the tallest player in NHL history, started his North American playing career with the WHL’s Prince George Cougars. He spent the first four years of his NHL career with the New York Islanders, after being selected 56th overall in the third round of the 1996 NHL Entry Draft.
After being traded to the Ottawa Senators in 2001, Chara continued to grow into his large form, becoming an elite defenseman and scoring career highs in a tandem with Wade Redden. He earned his first Norris nomination in 2004 with 16-goal, 41-point season, ultimately losing out to Anaheim Ducks all-time best free agent Scott Niedermayer.
Needless to say, the Bruins weren’t at their best when Chara signed with the team. Not having made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, with their most recent appearance ending in a disappointing first-round exit in 2004 wasting a 3-1 series deficit, the team needed to make some changes.
After losing ten of their first 11 games in the 2005-06 season, the decision was made to trade captain Joe Thornton to San Jose in exchange for Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart, and Wayne Primeau. Despite a resurgence in the team, lead by goalie (and runner-up for this article) Tim Thomas, Bruins management fired both General Manager Mike O’Connell and head coach Mike Sullivan, bringing on Peter Chiarelli from Ottawa and Dave Lewis from Detroit to fill their respective roles.
With the increase in salary cap space created by the 2004-05 lockout, interim GM Jeff Gorton was able to acquire free agent Chara, a player who had scored 16 goals and 27 assists in the 71 games he played in Ottawa during the 2005-06 season, the 4th consecutive year he increased his point totals. Gorton cited the fact that Ottawa had the lowest goals-against in the Eastern Conference that season as his major reasoning for wanting Chara on the Boston blue line. The five-year, $37.5 million dollar deal made him a Bruin through the 2010-11 season.
Also acquired was free agent Marc Savard, who would likely have been the subject of this article had his career not been cut short due to injury.
Before the start of the 2006-07 season, it was announced that Chara would be named the team captain, filling the void left by Thornton’s departure the previous November. Newly-hired GM Chiarelli said that he showed great leadership ability from the time he started attending informal skates with his new teammates.
While the Bruins were unable to make the playoffs again in Chara’s first season as their captain, the hiring of head coach Claude Julien brought about a change in the team that led to the steady increase in skill and talent that led to the team making the playoffs from 2008-2014. This included a Stanley Cup win in 2011 and another Staaley Cup Final appearance in 2013, where they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks. They also hosted two Winter Classics, the first a 2-1 overtime win over the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, and the second a 5-1 loss to the Canadiens in 2016.
Chara himself continues to show determination and leadership as a player. Since joining Boston, he has appeared in five All-Star games (including one as captain), was nominated for the Norris Trophy for best defenseman five times (including a win in 2009), and won the Mark Messier Leadership Award in 2011. He also currently holds the NHL record for the hardest shot at 108.8 miles per hour, set at the 2012 All-Star Skills Competition.
Even at the age of 39 with over 1200 games played, he still leads the team in ice time. What makes this even more incredible is that through his first 231 games, Chara had just six goals and 28 points combined. With the body of work he’s put in for Boston, he will be best known for his larger than life frame and booming shot in the “Spoked B.”
It can be said that the signing of Chara ushered in a new, modern era for the Boston Bruins, and that is why he should be considered the team’s best free agency acquisition of all time.