After two decades, three other teams, a Stanley Cup and a Norris Trophy victory, Zdeno Chara is headed back to where his legendary career bagan.
The veteran defenseman agreed to a deal with the Islanders on Saturday, the team that drafted the future Hall of Famer way back in 1996, and where Chara spent his first four NHL seasons.
“It’s kind of full circle,” Chara said, speaking for the first time as an Islander again. “Who knew this would work out the way it did after 20-something years? I’m certainly honored and humbled to be an Islander again. The organization went through some transitions over the course of 20 years, but we all see the progress.”
A lot has changed since Chara was last on the Island. The team lost at least 40 games each year he was on the team (41, 48, 48 and 51), then reached the playoffs in four out of the next five years after Chara joined on with the Senators where he became a star. Then five straight fifth-place finishes in the Atlantic Division followed for New York in the division standings, slipping back into a lull while Chara became a household name with the Bruins, winning a Stanley Cup in 2010.
But the Islanders are back as contenders, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons, coming one game short of a Stanley Cup berth last season. Now, the 44-year-old Chara will see if he can recapture some youth at the place where it all began.
“They were my first team, my first NHL experience,” Chara said. “We were going through some different phases at that time, but I learned a lot from that.”
While Chara is in the twilight phase of his remarkable career, he did say that there were other options on the table, but he decided to go to a familiar place that will also give him a chance to win another Stanley Cup.
“There were other teams,” Chara said. “Respectfully, I’m not gonna name them, but there was a good amount of interest. We had to go through this process where it was taking some time. I had some conversations with teams and my family, and we made the decision to go with the Islanders.”
Playing for the Capitals and Bruins over the last two seasons, Chara has had an up-close look at the rise of the Islanders, and will try and bring grit and leadership to hopefully put New York over the top.
From what Chara has seen, the Islanders don’t need too much more to get there.
“They play a heavy game, a grinding game and don’t give up many chances,” Chara said. “It’s a very solid group with strong leadership and a strong core of players that have been part of the Islanders for a long time…I think it’s a well-structured and cultured team now. They’re making a lot of noise around the league, especially over the last few years.”
Follow Ryan Chichester on Twitter: @ryanchichester1