If you’re wondering which direction the Boston Bruins are headed with their defensemen group for next season, Bruce Cassidy ended the suspense by quoting the Lion King of all things. The B’s bench boss talked about the hockey “circle of life” during an NBC10 interview last week while looking ahead to Black and Gold life without 29-year-old Torey Krug and potentially without 43-year-old Zdeno Chara next year and beyond.
They still have one graybeard in 32-year-old Kevan Miller if he can remain healthy on a one-year deal, but it’s also clear the Bruins are turning things over on their back end to young prospects after investing high draft picks over the last five years.
This was the reality as soon as the deal for Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman Larsson didn’t pan out for them at the beginning of this month.
Some of it is involuntary based on the salary cap and high draft picks Jakub Zboril and Urho Vaakanainen reaching a make-or-break stage with the B’s organization, and some of it is an admission on Boston’s part they need a young, bigger, stronger and more fluid defense corps able to quickly move the puck and adequately defend around the net.
Will it all work out if they go really, really young on the back end to start next season?
It’s impossible to answer before the players get out on the ice, but they clearly have the right head coach in Cassidy, a former NHL defenseman that’s consistently developed quality D-men in the Boston Bruins organizations at the AHL and NHL levels.
It’s also just as clear there’s significant pressure on established guys like Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo. Not only does that trio need to ramp up their offensive production while replacing Krug’s annual 10 goals and 50 points and PP ability, but they also need to step into veteran leadership roles with youngsters like Jakub Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen, Jeremy Lauzon and Connor Clifton all expected to log significant ice time on the new-look Bruins back end.
Cassidy wasn’t shying away from any of it while addressing the plan going forward with Krug, and possibly Chara, out of the picture for next season.
“We just re-signed Matt Grzelcyk, and he has taken on some of those [offensive] responsibilities when Torey has been out of the lineup,” said Cassidy. “They have some similarities to their style of play. We’re going to ask some of that from [Grzelcyk] and there’s going to be competition from some other [young] players. Don’t forget that we’ve drafted two first rounders in Zboril and Vaakanainen, and a second rounder in Lauzon. They’ve all played up here for varying amounts. That is kind of ‘the circle of life’ in pro sports.
“They’re going to be given a chance to see what they can do at this level. They are supported well on the right side by guys in McAvoy, Carlo, Miller and Clifton that are all solid guys. So whoever is going into our lineup is going to have a solid partner, and we look at it that way as well.”
Considering that one would have to combine the career-high numbers of Grzelcyk and McAvoy to equal a typical offensive season for Krug, there are some legitimate questions about exactly where all that offense is going to come from. Subtracting from a B’s defensemen corps that struggled offensively in the Toronto bubble leaves far more questions than answers at this point in the offseason.
Conspicuously absent from any of Cassidy’s comments was 29-year-old John Moore, who hasn’t lived up to expectations a few seasons into a five year deal with the Bruins.
Beyond the obvious assumed answers, however, the Bruins also hope they have another Krug-in-the-making in Jack Ahcan, a 5-foot-8, 184-pound puck-mover out of St. Cloud State signed as a free agent after four collegiate seasons. The 23-year-old Ahcan probably won’t be thrown into the NHL fire right away this coming season, but Boston Bruins management hopes he’ll be ready to step in with some high-impact offensive play after some development time in Providence.
It was the same with Krug when he took a year at the AHL level out of college to develop under Cassidy’s tutelage before making a sizable impact as an offensive defenseman in Boston.
Either way, expect growing pains from the Bruins defensemen corps as they go from young, carefree lion cub to King of the Jungle in extending Cassidy’s “circle of life” metaphor while describing Boston’s youthful back end situation moving forward.