We’re back with notes and thoughts on the defensemen on the Boston Bruins playoff roster.
Practices are back underway and we’re getting input from multiple sources in attendance, plus our own analysis and even gut feelings about how things will play out when the round robin commences against Philadelphia on August 2.
We’ll continue with a look at the forwards tomorrow. -KL
Brandon Carlo- The first of three second-round picks in the 2015 draft is the most accomplished, having broken into the NHL at the tender age of 19 and now established as a proven defender with size, mobility and reach to keep opponents away from the prime scoring areas. The Colorado native keeps it simple, and he’ll never be a threat to the memory of Bobby Orr, but he’s highly effective and trusted in key defensive situations. He suffered a concussion just before the season got paused, so the B’s are getting Carlo when he’s healthy and clear-headed.
Zdeno Chara- Entering his 11th playoff season with the Bruins (he’s missed the dance just 3 times since he signed 14 years ago: 2007, 2015 and 2016), the captain is long in the tooth at age 43, but the time off just may have done wonders for his ageless machine. Always in tip-top shape, Chara is not dealing with the typical fatigue and body challenges that he faces as the league’s elder statesman. Now, the future Hall of Famer enters his 15th postseason, he’s rested and will likely have much more jump in his legs than we’re used to seeing each spring.
Even though he’s nowhere near the two-way defender he was in his prime and even 2013, when he established a career-best 15 postseason points at age 36, Chara’s experience, leadership and hardcore mindset make him an important asset for Boston’s blue line.
Connor Clifton- The 25-year old Arizona castoff who emerged a year ago in Boston’s run to the Stanley Cup final played in just 31 regular season games as he battled injuries, but he plays with speed, pace and bite. Although he’s under 6-foot in height, he’s always been a physical defender at every level, looking to level kill shots in open ice and playing like he was born with a chip on his shoulder. Because of his style and lack of natural size/thickness, he’s going to spend time on the IR, but Clifton provides superb depth for the B’s, and come playoff time, he elevates his game as his hypercompetitive drive kicks into high gear.
Matt Grzelcyk- Coming off a career-high 68 regular season games and 21 points, the Charlestown native and former Belmont Hill and BU star keeps getting better in the NHL. Always an elite skater, he’s gotten more adept at using his speed and smarts defensively, while building on his natural strength of moving pucks quickly out of his own end and being a big boon to the transition game. Grzelcyk has proven himself as a smaller D who provides a different dimension than Torey Krug does for the club, but the two have opened a lot of eyes around the league about the effectiveness they bring while not being carbon copies of one another. Grzelcyk’s success and emergence make him a potential expansion draft casualty a year from now, but after a solid 2019 postseason, he’s primed to have another big spring.
Torey Krug- He would’ve been one of the big free agent prizes on July 1st, but the Bruins still have No. 47 on the roster for one more run after he came up short (no pun intended) in two final series appearances as a rookie in 2013 and a year ago. A badger on skates, Krug was denied a fourth consecutive 50+ point season with the pause, but with 49 in 61 games is still one of the top offensive blue liners in pro hockey and a registered lethal weapon with the man advantage. He’s got a cannon of a shot and always has his head up, looking to thread pucks through traffic to teammates in prime scoring areas. It has become vogue to knock Krug’s defensive play, but that’s a lazy argument that does not take into account his experience or smart stick and genuine drive to prove the doubters wrong. True, he won’t match up 1-on-1 the way his D partner Carlo does, but the beauty of it is- he doesn’t have to.
There’s a lot of talk that Krug won’t be wearing a spoked B when the next season kicks off, but for now- he’s fully on board for one last hurrah if that’s what it will be. Those of us who have watched him flourish and grow after being the best college free agent signing of the decade eight years ago tend to believe that the B’s will find a way to bring him back into the fold, but if it is not to be, then Krug will be at his best for this playoffs.
Jeremy Lauzon- One of two defenders drafted in 2015’s second round (Carlo), Lauzon is on the verge of stepping out and into a full-time NHL role going forward. He has been paired with Grzelcyk on the team’s second day of return to play camp, and he’s a good partner for the smaller, more fleet-of-foot veteran. Lauzon can skate and defend and embraces the physical side of things, though he’s not as mobile or skilled as Grzelcyk. He can move pucks effectively enough, but has enough jam to balance the pairing.
Lauzon isn’t going to put up a lot of points, but he’s a smart, capable player who is versatile enough to chip in with a timely goal or assist, but is more valuable as a hard-to-play against defender who led the 2015-16 Rouyn-Noranda Huskies to a .776 regular season winning percentage and captured the QMJHL championship and a Memorial Cup run. He’s a winner.
Charlie McAvoy- Okay, we’re just going to say it: McAvoy is Boston’s best defenseman. He might not be that guy fully completely (to coin a phrase from the Tragically Hip- RIP Gord Downie) but he’s getting there fast. Granted, the critics- and there are a few out there- will point to McAvoy’s lack of high-end production, low contribution to the PP and turnovers as reasons that he’s not a top NHL defender, but we disagree. At age 22, McAvoy is far from a finished product, and we have 100% confidence that he will develop into a franchise cornerstone in the not very distant future. He’s no Ray Bourque, but in the modern age of hockey, he’s a perfect fit as a top 2-way defender because he can motor, has excellent vision but most importantly- has the aggressive mindset to make plays at both ends of the rink. Yes, he’ll push the envelope at times and turn pucks over, but coaches would much rather tame a wild colt than try to paint stripes on a pussycat. McAvoy is a tiger and we think he’s the one x factor on this blue line who could emerge in dramatic fashion this spring.
He’s the one the Bruins are going to have to invest in when his contract is up and he’ll be worth it. The fun part will be in watching him get there, and we’ll all have to take the good with the bad. The good will far outweigh the negatives- we’re positive that’s true. He does so many of the things you just can’t teach, and when you watch the dynamic plays he makes out there that may not look like much at first glance, you realize the B’s have something special on their hands. Brilliant pick at 14th- he’s so much better than most thought he’d be and the best part of all is that he’s only getting better.
John Moore- It’s been a tough couple of seasons for the player the B’s signed at term (five years) and value ($2.75M cap hit) to perhaps mitigate future losses to expansion while rolling the dice on him hitting an extra gear as he entered his prime. So far, that plan has not come to fruition. The former 21st overall pick in 2009 is already with his fifth NHL team and is one of those players who typically gets traded a lot over the course of a pro career: he brings enough value to be wanted, but isn’t impactful enough to be a core guy who establishes himself in one location. He played his best hockey with the moribund New Jersey Devils before signing- a good player on a bad team. Since signing in Boston, Moore hasn’t been able to carve a niche for himself on the B’s blue line and had an injury-plagued 19-20 campaign. He’s good depth at this point, but with his cap hit and others at much lower cap figures like Clifton and Lauzon on the roster, Moore’s future with the B’s is uncertain.
Urho Vaakanainen- The first-round pick in 2017 didn’t have the greatest season in Providence, but will benefit from being around the team for the playoffs and practicing/being immersed in the culture. A mobile, defense-first player, he’s more of a high-floor type, and hopefully, he can overcome the setbacks of an elbow to the face by Ottawa’s Mark Borowiecki in 2018-19, and a lackluster 2019-20 campaign to take steps forward in his third North American pro season. It will be interesting to compare his poise and presence at the practices with that of fellow rookie Jakub Zboril.
Jakub Zboril- Boston’s first selection in 2015 has been passed by Carlo and Lauzon, but we’re still holding out hope that he can make the Boston roster in 20-21. With his size and skill package, Zboril is coming off of his most consistent and successful AHL season with Providence. Being around the Bruins as a black ace and extra will set the conditions for him to finally take that next step, but if not, there is probably another team out there willing to give him a shot. Still, given Boston’s time, energy and patience invested, we’d like to see it work out with Zboril in the Black and Gold. He’s not the player they hoped for, but he can still be a serviceable depth guy.