Derek Morris is happy to be out of his Coyotes get-up and looking forward to being paired with Chara. (AP)
Aaron Ward said a lot of things during his two-plus years with the Bruins. Some were notable, and some simply got a roll of the eyes around the B’s dressing room. But the verbose blueliner’s play spoke volumes on the ice.
Ward was a tough, no-nonsense, stay-at-home defenseman who served with Norris Trophy-winning Zdeno Chara as Boston’s top line of defense in front of Tim Thomas the last two seasons.
One of the biggest question marks this summer following Ward’s trade back to the Carolina Hurricanes was how it might affect the B’s captain coming off his best season. Chara had achieved a heightened level of trust with the steady Ward, and knowing that his partner had things covered defensively on his off-side allowed Chara to freelance and take more risks offensively.
Chara is rightfully known as a intimidating defensive stopper, but he also set career highs in goals scored (19) and power-play goals (11) and had the best plus-minus of his Bruins career during an incredibly well-balanced season. Big Z was much more aggressive rushing the back door during his power-play work and took it upon himself to frequently dump the puck into the zone and terrorize fellow defensemen by rushing into the corner for puck-retrieval duties.
The 32-year-old was able to branch out offensively because he knew Ward would hold down the fort on the back end of the ice as he recovered and returned to his rightful position. With that known quantity now up for debate once the B’s upgraded for a slicker puck-mover in the form of Derek Morris, it meant a spot opened up beside Chara on the top defense pairing. It’s a key position in the B’s lineup, and, for his part, Chara has said all the right things about adjusting to whichever player B’s coach Claude Julien selects to fill the role.
All that being said, B’s center Marc Savard couldn’t hold back his excitement envisioning his buddy “Mo” pairing up with Chara.
“He makes that first pass about as good as anyone,” Savard said. “If they play together then I think he’s going to rub off on [Chara] and [Chara] is going to rub off on him during the season. It’s an exciting time and we’ve made some subtle changes. I don’t make the lineups out, but I think that’s going to be the plan early [in the season], and they’re excited to play together.”
Morris is the leader in the clubhouse and is the most natural fit as Chara’s right-hand man, but Julien indicated that Matt Hunwick, Andrew Ference and even Mark Stuart have been considered, as well as veteran Dennis Wideman, who has some experience alongside the Slovak. It appears that Morris and Hunwick had been given the most thought in the early going, and the lefty-shooting Hunwick is, after all, used to working on his “off-side” after pairing with current Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jack Johnson during their days together at the University of Michigan.
Combining the speedy, offensive-minded Hunwick with the tough, deliberate, grinding Chara would have bestowed a top blueline pairing with two vastly different defensemen boasting very varied sets of of blueline skills, but there’s still some healthy concern about throwing too many wrinkles at the 24-year-old Hunwick too quickly.
As it stands now, expect Chara and Morris to begin the season skating together, with Wideman and Ference as the No. 2 pairing and Stuart and Hunwick rounding out the third pairing. That would leave Johnny Boychuk as the spare defenseman to start the season.
“Obviously, we’re looking Morris, [or] Wideman and Chara — we know what that pairing can do,” Julien said. “There are other situations we can do. At one point we said to ourselves, ‘What would Hunwick look like [with Chara].’ But, again, is he ready to face the top line? Because that’s a big part of the consideration. Is Hunwick ready to go up against the [opposition's] top lines, because that’s what Ward and Chara did.
“Plus, Hunwick is a second-year player and he would end up playing on his off-wing or off-side … whatever you want to call it. Those are all things you have to kind of weigh and that’s why you’ve seen Hunwick and Ference playing over on the right side. Because wherever they’re paired, they’ll be able to slide over to the right side.”
Morris was something just south of giddy at the thought of skating with Chara when he first signed with the Bruins this summer for $3.3 million, and it appears after a solid training camp that the righty-shooting D-man will get first crack skating with the Norris Trophy winner.
Morris has good skating speed, isn’t afraid to mix it up physically and clearly has the touch for quick initial entry passes out of the defensive zone. The only thing that appears lacking is the bond of trust between Chara and Morris, but that’s something that can only be built through logging shifts together once the real action begins.
“Let’s see how Derek Morris plays,” Julien said. “If he plays well and looks solid, then maybe he’s the guy to go with Chara. We’re just going to continue experimenting, and this may very well go into the start of the regular season as well.
“It doesn’t mean that it’ll be cut-and-dry as soon as the season starts, and we may move things around once we get going during the year.”