The Summer Cooler interview series is back!
A year ago, we kicked it off with Boston Bruins players Ryan Spooner and Torey Krug, plus Calgary Flames prospect Jon Gillies.
This time, and with Boston Bruins development camp around the corner, we’re proud to bring you an in-depth profile and interview on defenseman Matt Grzelcyk.
A third-round pick in 2012 (along with boyhood teammate and close chum Jimmy Vesey– but more on him later on) the former two-year Boston University captain is a Townie- born and raised in Charlestown, Mass. who grew up dreaming of playing for the Black and Gold. Now, with his NCAA career in the rearview mirror, Grzelcyk has his first real opportunity to make that dream come true, as he prepares for his first NHL main training camp in September.
His father, John, is a long-time member of the Boston Garden (okay- TD Garden) bull gang, and young Grzelcyk was born during the last full 80-game season of the old Boston Garden. Yes, the final hockey campaign for the old barn was 1994-95, when Grzelcyk turned 1, but a lockout shortened that season to just 48 games. “Grizzy” grew up in the shadow of the FleetCenter (now TD Garden) and played his minor hockey close to home, including his time as a standout prep schooler at Belmont Hill School in Belmont, before joining Team USA at age 16.
The scouting report on Grzelcyk is pretty straight forward- what he lacks in ideal NHL size and physical strength, he more than compensates for in speed, hockey IQ and a champion’s heart and desire. He’s a left-shot defenseman who can push the pace and excels in space, where he uses his 4-way compass skating to move the puck out of danger and speed up the transition game. He’s improved his shot from when he was with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. from 2010-12, having scored 20 goals (and 61 points) in his last two years in the NCAA with the Terriers (68 games) versus just six markers in his freshman and sophomore years combined. Like other undersized defenders, he can be physically overpowered at times in his own end and has to rely on positional smarts and savvy, along with an active stick and ability to read the developing play.
Although Grzelcyk resembles current Bruins defenseman Torey Krug in that they are both under 6-feet and were captains of their respective college teams, it would be a mistake to think that the rookie pro is a carbon copy of the established veteran who just inked a deserved four-year extension worth $5.25 million per year. The two might share some similar traits, but they bring different styles to the ice. With his talent and drive, don’t bet against Grzelcyk one day establishing himself in the NHL as a top-4 D, but he may require developmental time in the minors and have to work his way up the big club’s depth chart accordingly. For now, he’s focusing on making sure he’s physically and mentally prepared for the challenge after being hindered by several knee injuries in the past 14 months.
Matt was kind enough to talk pucks with the Scouting Post this week after one of his daily off-ice workouts, as he prepares for the beginning of B’s prospects camp next week.
Here’s the Q & A:
the Scouting Post: Matt, up front- congratulations on finishing your career at BU. Looking back on the four years, what are some of the things you are most proud of in terms of accomplishments and personal growth?
Matt Grzelcyk: Thank you. I think being at BU at four years was definitely an up and down journey at times, and my class especially can attest that we went through a lot of adversity but I felt that it made us grow up a ton more. It certainly seems that with the incoming class this year- BU is on track to get right back to being the powerhouse that a lot of people are used to seeing. I’m really proud to have been a part of that, and to have started that journey back up after sophomore year.
TSP: You’re getting ready to officially join Boston’s system- outside of going to the annual (summer) development camps. Talk about the biggest changes you’ve experienced from your first development camp in 2012 and you’re getting ready to hit your fifth camp. What perspectives can you share in terms of what it was like when you started out and what are some of the things that you’ve learned that have helped you in your development over the past four seasons after being drafted by Boston?
MG: I think especially my first year I was a little more wide-eyed going in. I wasn’t really sure how development camps worked or anything like that- I think it was about a week after I’d just been drafted, which was kind of a whirlwind experience in itself. I think that after the first three years, I’ve been able to settle down. This year especially, I’m excited to go there because I haven’t been really in the loop of things for two years getting caught up on some injuries (editor’s note- knee surgery in May 2015 prevented Grzelcyk from being a full participant last summer), but it’s definitely exciting to be get back out there, especially with the great young talent the team has coming in.
TSP: Is this something where your role as one of the more veteran and experienced prospects on the development camp roster lends itself to more of a hands-on role for you?
MG: Yeah, so I think over the years, I’ve been able to step into more of a leadership role, especially with being able to wear the ‘C’ at BU for two years. That definitely helped me grow up a little bit more and take more responsibility for not only my play on the ice, but how I handle myself off the ice. It was a great experience being able to be a leader at BU and hopefully this year, I can help out some of the younger guys like my (Terriers defense) partner, Charlie McAvoy, who’s coming into his first camp. If he or anyone else needs any advice or anything else along the way, I’m happy to help.
TSP: You talked to me about McAvoy in my post-draft feature on him, but for those who might have missed that, can you share a little more about what he brings to the table?
MG: I’d say first and foremost- Charlie’s a heck of a kid. He’s really a complete player. On the ice- he’s a lot of fun to play with and he can certainly add a lot to the offense with his skill set. He’s got a real broad frame to him too, so he’s real tough to get off the puck. He skates the puck extremely well, which feeds right into where the Bruins want to go- they want to play more of a transition game and Charlie can certainly provide that. I think he was the youngest skater in college hockey last year- I don’t know that you could have drawn up a better season than the one he had- he really was awesome.
TSP: I had an opportunity to speak with Terriers head coach (David) Quinn right after the McAvoy selection, and the words he used were “magnetic personality” to describe Charlie as a player that everyone just seemed drawn to and was a guy the other players wanted to be around. Coach Don Granato (U.S. NTDP) also talked about what a loyal player he is in that he does whatever the coaches ask but he also was a guy that the teammates just gravitate to. Did you get the same sense about him not only as his on-ice partner but the captain of the team as well?
MG: Absolutely. He’s about as likable as a kid as you can have on your team. He’s always got a smile on his face; he’s always positive going into the rink. But, the other thing I like about him is that as soon as he steps on the ice, he means business and he’s got that game face on, especially this year, when I noticed he had some more physicality to his game. He’s really competitive, even in practice- he practices as hard as anyone I’ve been around, so I’m sure the Bruins definitely like to hear that and they’ll see it from him at development camp.
TSP: Let’s talk about Matt Grzelcyk– for people who maybe aren’t familiar with your background, can you talk about growing up in Charlestown and what it means to have the kind of connection to the team you always have, and what it was like for you in Pittsburgh to be in the Consol Energy Center when the Bruins called your name with the 85th overall selection?
MG: It’s a unique experience growing up in Boston and getting drafted by the Bruins. It’s something that I couldn’t even imagine happening along the way. Obviously, playing at the national team and being on some pretty stacked teams on defense- playing time was pretty hard to come by especially at the end of the (2011-12) season and at the U18 Worlds, but I just tried to get better as much as I could, and being a part of that team was huge. Going into Pittsburgh, obviously the rankings were what they were and everything but being so low was kind of discouraging and I didn’t want to be one of those guys that showed up at the draft and didn’t get picked, so I was kind of unsure. I don’t know if my parents got a tip or something but they were pretty adamant about me going down, at least to watch and support my teammates getting picked, so to have my name called in the third round was a shock, but growing up as a kid in Boston, I couldn’t have drawn it up any better.
My whole U18 year had a lot of (NHL)teams come in and interview guys and I’d kind of had the feeling that I might be on a lot of teams’ lists, so I kind of had an indication that I was at least on some peoples’ radars, which was encouraging to hear. But going into the draft- you try not to ask too many questions about where you think you might get drafted or anything like that. I didn’t want to create that expectation in my mind, but I certainly wasn’t even contemplating going in the top-three rounds, so that was definitely a shock. I’m definitely not complaining about it!
TSP: How much of a relief was it for you to get that entry-level contract with the Bruins done and signed last spring and what is your honest feeling as you sit on the verge of your first main veteran camp and the chance to skate with and get to know guys that you’ve watched from a distance in the past, but now have the opportunity to work and compete with and against?
MG: I think right now I’m just anxious more than anything. It’s certainly been a long time coming; it seems like a long time ago that the draft happened and I’ve had a few hiccups along the way, but I’m really just anxious and excited to get things going. It’s been a long journey but to get the contract done and out of the way was huge. Obviously, it’s a dream come true that it happened, but it’s really just the first step in the process. I’m just going to continue to work as hard as I possibly can this summer to make sure that heading into camp I’m ready to go. It’s so nice to be training here at BU with the new (Brighton) facility right down the street so there’s certainly a lot of motivation coming into camp and the kind of opportunity that lies ahead with the Bruins defense so I’m really just looking forward to it.
TSP: Can you talk about the summer pro league in Foxboro you’ve been a part of and what the chance to play with guys like Jack Eichel and Jimmy Vesey and so many others in the NHL, minor pro and NCAA ranks does for your development and how beneficial it is for you to get a chance to skate in the offseason like that?
MG: I think it’s awesome, honestly- there aren’t many leagues in the summer months around like it, so to have all those guys come each and every summer to skate there is a great there is such a good experience. There are a number of great players- you can work on skills all you want, but it’s nice to sometimes get a break from that and come in and compete against guys who know what it takes and can let you show your skills off and learn from one another. I think a lot of the guys- they don’t just take it easy- it’s a great workout and a lot of conditioning and it’s nice to tune up those guys and have a few special players like Jack and Jimmy and others to just soak it up and watch them- see the tendencies that they have and it’s nice to be able to apply that to your game.
TSP: Without getting into speculation about his NHL destination, can you talk about Jimmy Vesey as a person and a player? I think it’s worth mentioning the relationship you have with him and with Brendan Collier as well as the closest of friends who came up through minor hockey together and have been around each other as teammates and opponents. There aren’t many who know Vesey on and off the ice as well as you do. Jimmy might be a North Reading guy, but his dad’s a Townie- I think a lot is lost in translation by those who aren’t from the Boston area and might not realize just how close those bonds are between you. (Editor’s note- “Big Jim” Vesey was Grzelcyk’s first organized minor hockey coach, a team he played on with Jimmy and Collier)
MG: Yeah- Jimmy’s a great player, obviously. He won the Hobey Baker last year, which was great, and I think the season before that was just as spectacular if not better. He’s certainly grown up a lot at Harvard and I’ve played with him since we were six years old, so I know how good he’s been- he’s really been the best player in our age group for a long time and he’s as competitive a teammate as I’ve ever had, and he’s a great friend off the ice. He’s got a great skill set to him, it’s obviously well-documented: I think just the way he approaches the game is a little different than anyone else- they way he’s so aggressive attacking the net and he has unbelievable skills with high-end vision and hockey IQ. I’m sure having his dad (former Merrimack College legend and NHL forward Jim Vesey) along the way has helped him- I know it certainly helped me as a teammate and player growing up.
TSP: You’re a student of the game, so you’ve followed the NHL over the years- what were your first impressions when you got the news on July 1st that Loui Eriksson was moving on, but the Bruins had signed St. Louis Blues captain and one of the most notable USA players in David Backes?
MG: I think it’s awesome- just as a fan of the game and watching the NHL each and every year I think he certainly gets your attention with his 200-foot play. He’s clearly as competitive a guy as there is in the NHL. Like you mentioned, I think he’s kind of paved the way for USA Hockey along the way through his years of coming up. I don’t know him personally, but I’m definitely a huge fan of the way he plays the game and I’m sure a lot of the guys on the (Bruins) team are excited to have him on board and I know the Bruins are definitely excited to sign a guy like him because he brings a lot of passion to the game, so I think he’ll be a fan favorite here early on.
TSP: Going back to the Bruins defense- you know there will be stiff competition- there are a lot of veterans there. What is your outlook and what do you think is a healthy mindset for you going in knowing that you will be competing for an NHL job in terms of making the best impression to earn a job with the big club sooner rather than later?
MG: I think number one especially coming after the season I had with the injury bug, is that I’ve had a little time in the summer to kind of take it upon myself to come to camp in the best possible shape I can to be able to compete with those guys. A few of them (Krug among them) have come into the (BU) gym and I’ve seen firsthand just how hard they work. It’s a nice reminder and thing to have in the back of my head for what it takes to get to that level. I think going into camp I just- I’ve always been raised to be a really competitive guy-a lot of defensemen are vying for jobs and I’m trying to give it the best shot I can. I’m trying to put myself in the best situation I can physically, and I think mentally- just knowing that the Bruins are really seeking more transition to their game and it’s definitely a strong suit of mine, so to be able to add to the offense…not necessarily with goals and assists but by just making it easier on the forwards by making a really great first pass out of the zone is just something that I’ve learned is extremely important especially from Coach Quinn here at BU.
I think keeping that in mind and staying with that competitive side. I’m obviously a smaller player and there are tons of really big guys in the NHL, but if I can go in there as physically ready as I can be, and I’ve also improved my defensive game as a whole since I’ve gotten to BU so, just take those lessons in and give it my 100 percent effort.
Thanks to Matt for taking the time and there will be more where that came from as the summer goes on. Watch for future posts, podcasts and other things here at the Scouting Post as we work through the offseason and start looking ahead to the 2016-17 hockey season. As always, thanks for reading (and listening)!