Dominic Tiano is back with his assessment of how the Boston Bruins defense has played through one quarter of the 2021 NHL season. Enjoy!- KL
When Torey Krug signed with the St Louis Blues and Zdeno Chara ultimately decided to sign with the Washington Capitals, there was nothing but unanswered questions surrounding the Boston Bruins blue line for the 2020-21 National Hockey League season.
Who was going to replace Krug on the powerplay? Who is going to replace the offense from the blue line? Who was going to replace Chara on the penalty kill? Who was going to shut down the opposition’s top lines? Who was going to replace Chara’s leadership? It was question after question after question, and when you tried to answer them, fans didn’t like the answers.
We are officially at the quarter-way point of the season, so this is a good sample size to look at how the young defense has performed thus far.
The 2019-20 President’s Trophy winners dressed ten different defensemen and they combined for a total of 32 goals and 112 assists in the 70-game shortened season.
This season, the Bruins have dressed eight defensemen and only because of the injuries to Matt Grzelcyk and have scored 3 goals and 21 assists. That projects to 12 goals and 84 assists for the season. Pro-rated over 70 games, that is 15 goals and 105 assists. The helpers are fine, but they are on pace to score half of what last year’s blue line did and despite the 10-2-2 start, it could be a problem moving forward.
Last season, the Bruins had the third best penalty kill with an 84.19% success rate Mostly on the backs of Chara and Brandon Carlo. To date this season, the Bruins rank second with an 88.0% success rate largely on the backs of Carlo and Jeremy Lauzon. They are backed up by Charlie McAvoy and Kevan Miller, with Lauzon and Miller picking up the Chara minutes.
At the other end of the ice is where the loss of Krug was thought to be most impactful, especially the powerplay. Coach Bruce Cassidy has tried different things including five forwards at times. A year ago, with Krug manning the point, the Bruins had the second best powerplay in the league converting on 25.22% of their opportunities. This season they rank eighth but are converting on 27.27% of their chances, an increase of 2.02%. But they need a blueliner that can take the reigns there and the injuries to Grzelcyk don’t help. As we saw last against the Islanders, using 5 forwards can cost you.
The loss of Chara on the blue line, and Krug for that matter, takes away some leadership on the back end, but you can’t underestimate the leadership of Miller, now the grey-beard on the team. He can keep his teammates calm and cool under pressure. Not to mention the young guys stepping into the role. Carlo has over 300 games under his belt and Grzelcyk and McAvoy around 200. They will be counted on to take up some of the leadership slack left by Chara’s departure.
Cassidy and his coaching staff have also adjusted the system employed now that he has a more mobile unit on the backend. First off, they’ve tried to employ a more traditional shut-down defender with a puck mover on each pair, something that has worked so far.
Secondly, when defending, the defense has the green light for both guys to activate below their own goal line with the centerman usually covering the net in front of Tuukka Rask or Jaroslav Halak. Third, they all have the green light to skate out of the zone. And finally, because of the young legs, they can all activate at the offensive blue line and pinch down deep, something the coaching staff keeps encouraging them to do.
Coming into the season we preached how young this defense was going to be and that there would be growing pains. The growing pains have been evident, but not consistently and it has yet to hurt the team but, there is a long way to go.
Here’s a look at the Bruins defense, our Grade, and what we’ve seen so far:
CHARLIE MCAVOY Grade: A
I will be the first to admit it: Charlie McAvoy should be an A+. But for me, to earn an A+ you need to excel in every area of the game and McAvoy is doing that in every situation except one and that is the power play, although that is through no fault of his own. Cassidy prefers a left shot defender up top on the first unit which is why, when Grzelcyk is healthy, he gets those opportunities first. Cassidy has also used five forwards (at times) in the absence of Grzelcyk instead of McAvoy with David Krejci (who happens to be a right shot) at the point.
In the absence of Krug, McAvoy has taken his game to another level offensively. He is on pace to set career highs in goals, assists and points – all in just a 56-game schedule. He leads the team in assists and points, shot attempts and shots on goal and he can drive the offense from the back end like few others can.
It’s not just about offense though. He’s trusted to defend, almost always going up against the opposition’s top players. He kills penalties, he’s physical, he’s a one-man breakout machine and he easily leads his fellow blue liners in blocked shots with 29.
McAvoy is a minute eating defender who does it with quality. He leads the blue line averaging 24:19 in time on ice – 4:34 more per game than the next closest, his partner Lauzon. He leads them by a wide margin in even strength time on ice, exactly 20 minutes and he averages 2:09 in powerplay time and 2:14 in penalty kill time per game.
McAvoy will get some serious consideration for the Norris Trophy this season. Well deserved consideration. His time as a true number one defenseman in the NHL has arrived.
JEREMY LAUZON Grade: B
A lot of eyebrows were raised when it was suggested here, and the coaching staff gave Lauzon the duties of skating beside McAvoy. Has he disappointed anyone? Lauzon has been the steady defensive defenseman that can be relied upon and that in turn, gives McAvoy the opportunity to concentrate more on offense. He refuses to be outworked and leads his team in hits with 39.
He’s been winning the majority of his battles along the walls and in front of the net. Not only is he good at clearing his zone, he can make a good first pass as well and usually makes the right decisions. He’s become a staple in the penalty kill leading all Bruins blueliners in PK time on a PK that had an efficiency of 84.19% a season ago to 88.0% this season. The coaching staff is showing they are gaining more and more confidence in him and it is reflected in his average time on ice. Averaging 19:45 TOI, Lauzon trails only McAvoy at 24:19 in that department.
As we saw against the Washington Capitals on February 1, Lauzon does have some offensive abilities. Where the coaching staff used him mostly for defensive zone draws prior to that, they have been giving him more and more offensive starts lately, to the point where is starts are virtually even. Again, he trails only McAvoy in attempted shots on goal with 41 and shots on goal with 21 and Grzelcyk in percentage that get on goal with 51.2%.
MATT GRZELCYK Grade: B-
Playing in just one game in between two injuries has limited Grzelcyk to just six games on the season. Despite his size, we know what we get from him. Quick on his skates, retrieves pucks quickly and transitions even faster. Uses his positioning and his stick to defend well. His metrics across the board are very good and there is no denying that.
I know many people will question this grade but hear me out. Grzelcyk is suppose to be the guy to replace Krug on the point on the first powerplay unit. Six games just aren’t enough of a sample size to determine if he is that guy – yet. But if he is, then an A Grade is definitely on the horizon.
What we do know is Grzelcyk can sure pass and he can make smart plays. While he doesn’t posses the same kind of shot from the point that can beat a goaltender like Krug can, Grzelcyk shoots smartly. He likes to send pucks towards the goal and in just six games has directed 20 shots towards the net. A whopping 65% of those shots have reached the netminder. How good is that? Only one other defenceman is above 50% (Lauzon, 51.2%). Even McAvoy is firing at 46.4%.
That’s an important skill for a point man to have, especially since the Bruins appear to have found their permanent net front presence in Nick Ritchie. If Grzelcyk can come back and take the reigns and be effective on the powerplay, his grade can only go up.
BRANDON CARLO Grade: B
Carlo is quite simply one of the premier shut down defenders in the NHL. At 6’5” and over 210 pounds, he is a superb skater. Although he isn’t as physical as many fans want him to be, Carlo has some amazing strength that makes him a force in front of his goaltenders and a defender that the opposition doesn’t relish battling along the walls. He can go up against the oppositions best and paired with Lauzon on the penalty kill, form on of the better PK pairs in the NHL.
It’s noticeable that Carlo wants to be more involved in the offense and he has taken it upon himself to do just that. Carlo could very well surpass his career high of 19 points from a season ago, and do it in the shortened 56-game schedule.
Carlo has somewhat slowed that offensive down lately, largely due to the turnstile of partners he’s had, with little chance to get some chemistry going. He’s usually paired with Grzelcyk, but injuries have limited him to just 6 games. When the latter was out, it was with Clifton and then on what was a back-to-back situation, John Moore. And as mentioned, he is usually paired with Lauzon on the PK but also with Miller at times.
We fully expect that once Grzelcyk returns and Carlo gets a regular partner, that he will continue to push forward offensively.
JAKUB ZBORIL Grade: B-
Perhaps the growing pains are more evident in Zboril than any of the other d-men. And that is not a knock on him. He is the least experience of the group and the talent he possesses is clearly evident. But once in a while he might make you want to throw your remote through your 72” TV.
Again, they were expected to happen. But if you can set them aside for a moment and look at the good things, then we should be happy with what we are seeing. It’s true that Cassidy is somewhat sheltering him with the most offensive zone starts on the blue line at 63.4%, but the coach is also trying to get him accustomed to the NHL at the same time. When Lauzon was serving his 5 plus 10 with his fight in New York, Cassidy had no hesitation in throwing Zboril out there to kill a penalty. It’s in him, but it is evident the coach wants to take it slowly.
Cassidy is also willing to use Zboril on the powerplay and eventually, Zboril might just excel at it. He has an excellent shot from the point but he definitely needs to work on getting it through. He’s third among the blueliners with 36 attempted shots on goal, but is a team worst 36.1% getting it on the net, either missing the target or having it blocked. It’s not a matter of if, but when he gets better at that, good things will happen for him.
In his own zone, he’s good at retrieving pucks and transitioning, makes a good first pass, but more importantly, he can skate out of danger. He’s learning how strong NHL players are as compared to AHL players, but that to will come and some of the misfortunes he’s had will become less and less frequent.
KEVAN MILLER Grade: B-
When General Manager Don Sweeney inked Miller to his contract there was an uproar through Bruins Nation. Many eyebrows were raised and many questions were asked. Why sign Miller before Chara? Why sign a player that has not played in almost two years? And more importantly, why sign a player that is coming off of two major knee surgeries?
Well, 14 games into the season things have changed, and might I add, dramatically. In a poll I conducted on Twitter with over 500 hundred votes, Miller was the overwhelming choice by fans as the 7th Player Award winner to date with over 40% of the vote. (He was followed by Nick Ritchie with 28%)
However, it’s more than just being able to skate in 14 games when there was doubt (in the minds of fans) that he could not just play quality hockey, but play at all. Miller can play both sides of the ice with little difference when on his weak side. We’ve seen it a lot when paired with McAvoy on the second pair killing penalties. He’s physical and hits hard, trailing only Lauzon in hits with 30.
He’s a guy the coaches can depend on to defend a one goal lead in the last minute. He wins his battles along the walls and is hard to move. As we saw against the Rangers, down a man and the Rangers goaltender pulled for an extra attacker, Miller on his off side paired with Carlo, ate up a lot of the time remaining on the clock buy keeping the puck along the boards behind the goal line.
Despite Miller’s superb work on the PK and in key defensive situations, he and his usual partner in Zboril are getting some sheltered starts from Coach Cassidy, with over 61% of the pair’s zone starts being in the offensive zone.
CONNOR CLIFTON Grade: B-
Cliffy Hockey, what can we say? If there is one player in the NHL that plays much bigger than 5’11” and 175 pounds, it’s Clifton. While Lauzon leads the team in hits, it’s actually Clifton that leads the squad in hits per game with 3.3. He plays physical, he can defend and he can skate. He’s pretty underrated in some circles as a puck carrier, but he can move the puck. And he will stand up for a teammate.
Clifton doesn’t get much specialty team time on ice. The coaching staff use him primarily in 5 on 5 situations, but when one of the other d-men are in the box, they have no hesitation in using him on the PK.
It’s hard to imagine that on many teams he wouldn’t be a starter in the top six. For now, he is the 7th defenseman on this squad who will see time when someone goes down with an injury or is in need of a break.
With Clifton what you see is what you get: 100% effort on every shift, accountability and determination. You couldn’t ask for more from a player in his spot.
John Moore was left off the list because one game just isn’t enough to grade him on, even though he had a very good first game of the season against the Islanders.
We’ve sometimes repetitively said there would be growing pains with this young defence. And there has been on any given night one guy is not at his best. What we haven’t seen is those growing pains as a group. When one is struggling, the other five pick up the slack, and that is part of the reason they sit 10-2-2 one-quarter of the way through the season.