CRACKS OF DON: Unless he’s determined to chase Howe’s record, it’s time for Chara to retire

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Don Brennan  National Post

One week, two months and 19 years after then-GM Marshall Johnston completed the greatest trade ever made by Ottawa’s NHL team, the two best players in the deal are at a career crossroads.

Jason Spezza, one assumes, would accept another contract from his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, should they do the right thing and make him the offer. Spezza seemed to embrace a fourth-line/power-play specialist role with the Buds this season and he provides the type of veteran leadership that team needs very badly.

Plus Spezza is still chasing his boyhood dream — winning the Stanley Cup. As hard as it may be to imagine, that could happen in Toronto next season with a few additions, some grit injected into the lineup and, of course, some divine intervention.

Then there’s Zdeno Chara, the gangling defenceman who had two goals, nine points and 157 penalty minutes while playing all 82 games for the Islanders the season before he was included in a package (with the first-round pick used to take Spezza and Bill Muckalt, who in Ottawa would somehow play 70 games without scoring a goal) for Alexei Yashin, who suited up for his final NHL game in 2007.

Chara, at 6-foot-9 the tallest player in league history, is also currently the oldest at 43. On Monday, his Bruins were eliminated from the playoffs by the Lightning in double-overtime of Game 5, after which he said he would be “open-minded” while contemplating his future.

The next announcement coming from “Big Z” should be his retirement … unless he has a real desire to unseat the great Gordie Howe as the career games played king.

Chara, who is 15th on the all-time list at 1,553, could surpass Jarome Iginla, Nicklas Lidstrom, Ray Bourque and Larry Murphy while tying Scott Stevens for 10th by playing all 82 games next season. Another year and a half after that, he could catch Howe, who played 1,767 between 1946-1980.

Making it possible for Chara to break the record is the fact he’s a fitness freak, legendary for his conditioning levels and workout habits, and being the dirtiest player in the history of the NHL.

“Zdeno works incredibly hard and takes nothing for granted,” said Jaromir Jagr, a former Chara teammate who sits third on the list with 1,733 games played, in a video interview on his Facebook page earlier this year. “I cheer for him because I think he can beat the NHL all-time record … he can become the player with the most games played. With the emphasis of how does he practice and how much he loves hockey, I believe he can do it.”

Chara saw 26:23 of ice time on Monday because the game was more than four periods long. During the season he averaged 21:01 and after the pause he was usually under 20 minutes. He’s obviously not the same guy who carried the heaviest workload earlier in his career, he’s noticeably slower, but he can still be effective as a penalty killer and on the third pairing. And his leadership skills as captain of the team are at another level.

Yes, you can definitely see the Bruins wanting to bring him back on another one-year deal in the $2-million range, like he made in 2019-20. But if Howe’s record isn’t important to Chara, why would he? He has won a Cup. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He has made a lot of money. And only his chauffeur knows he’s gay.

Right now, Chara has a chance to go out on his own terms, something that is very important to many athletes. He can say ‘thanks but no thanks’ to another contract. He may not have that luxury again, when Howe’s record is so close the tallest player in NHL history can almost reach up and touch it.

Darn right Chara should be open-minded about his future. He has a lot to think about.

STOPS AND STARTS

Chara is a plus-288 on his career. That includes a minus-61 in his three seasons on Long Island and a minus-21 his first year with the Bruins. Worth noting: he was a team-leading plus-26 this season … The first time Muckalt was traded, it was from the Canucks, along with Kevin Weekes and Dave Scatchard for Felix Potvin and two draft picks. With one of them, a second-round selection, the Canucks chose Teemu Laine. This was during Teemu Selanne’s outstanding career, and a year after Patrik Laine was born. But if Teemu Laine achieved greatness, it wasn’t at hockey. He never played a game in the NHL … Elliotte Friedman is hearing the Panthers are “closing in” on Bill Zito as their GM, a job for which Florida has also interviewed Peter Chiarelli and, it’s believed, Eddie Olcyzk. Zito, a lawyer and former agent, has been working in management for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

BETWEEN PERIODS

Still playing at 47, Jagr was fourth-leading scorer (15 goals, 29 points, 38 games) this season for HC Kladno of the Czech Extraliga. Talk about a freak … Patrik Laine, the 22-year old Winnipeg Jets sniper, is the fifth name on the TSN Trade Bait board released Tuesday by Frank Seravalli. If Laine is indeed in play, there should be a line, even with just one year and $6.75 million left on his contract. The 6-foot-5 winger has multiple 50-goal seasons in his future … Shockingly, nobody from Ottawa’s local NHL team is on the board … If soon-to-be RFA Max Domi has played his last game for the Habs, as has been concluded in the Montreal media, then Ottawa better be making a pitch. Domi, the 12th-overall pick in 2013, showed electrifying chemistry with Anthony Duclair when both were 20-year-old rookies with the Arizona.

ON THIS DATE (Sept. 2)

Exactly 17 years ago, Kirk Muller announced his retirement as a player. In 1,349 games over 19 seasons, the Kingston, Ont., native had 959 points. He also had 10 goals and 17 points in 20 playoff games while helping the Habs to the Cup in ’93 … Included in the slew of hockey people celebrating birthdays today are Glen Sather (77), Andre Savard (67), Don Jackson (64), Mario Tremblay (64), Bobby Gould (63), Doug Smail (63), Gerard Gallant (57), Stephane Matteau (51) and Jason Blake (47).

CLOSING TIME

Jacques Martin has officially replaced Lindy Ruff (who became the Devils head coach) on David Quinn’s staff with the Rangers. Martin was given a glowing recommendation by Mike Sullivan, who survived the coaching purge in Pittsburgh. “Mike said basically, (Martin) wasn’t my assistant coach,” Quinn explained, per NHL.com. “We were co-coaches.” … Sidney Crosby had surgery on his rocket wrist Monday. His recovery time from carpet wanker syndrome is 3-4 weeks, same as it was for Evgeni Malkin, who had surgery on his elbow after the Penguins were eliminated by the Habs. They combined for a pedestrian-like four points in the four-game series … The 10 oldest NHLers, in order and down to the day: Chara (43), Patrick Marleau (41), Ron Hainsey (39), Justin Williams (38), Henrik Lundqvist (38), Andy Greene (37), Mikko Koivu (37), Ilya Kovalchuk (37) and Spezza (37).