In a five-part “Back to The Bruins” series ushering in the start of Boston Bruins training camp, we’ll look at different areas of the roster for the upcoming 2021 NHL season. Today, we continue with a defensemen group that’s going to look very different this season.
It’s not overstating it to say that the 2021 season for the Boston Bruins will hinge greatly on the way things develop for their newfangled back end.
The B’s defensemen group is the one place where the Bruins were bold with the roster changes this offseason, so uncertainty abounds. Top offensive defenseman Torey Krug was allowed to walk in free agency and sign a massive seven-year deal with the St. Louis Blues, and 14-year captain Zdeno Chara stunningly brought his rugged defensive game to the Washington Capitals for this coming season.
That means 2/3 of the left side of the Boston Bruins defense is gone from a President’s Trophy-winning group, and it isn’t exactly clear how it’s all going to work out. Matt Grzelcyk will undoubtedly shoulder a large portion of the responsibility and ice time and could even start the year in a top pairing situation with fellow Boston University alum Charlie McAvoy.
In fact, Grzelcyk and McAvoy are undoubtedly looked at as the two D-men counted on to replace Krug’s offensive production as well. Grzelcyk will get first crack as the quarterback on the top PP unit for the Bruins, but it’s likely going to be a combined Grzelcyk and McAvoy effort to replace the 10 goals and 50 points Krug consistently produced while with the Black and Gold. Now that both Krug and Chara are gone, there is going to be a ton of responsibility heaped on McAvoy’s shoulders as a 22-year-old D-man just entering his prime years.
It’s enough of a concern that they don’t want McAvoy to feel like he has to do everything with Krug and Chara elsewhere.
“We don’t want Charlie to change the way he plays in regard to who he’s playing with. I do believe he plays a lion’s share of the minutes and has puck possession. He leads our hockey club in those areas, and we don’t want that to change. He shouldn’t feel that he needs any undue pressure on him to change [his game]. He just has to go out and play the way that Charlie is capable of playing. We have to have other people step into minutes and roles, and carry the load,” said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “That’s a simple as it is. One player is not going to get you to the promised land, it has to be the collection of the group. Our group of six, on any particular night, needs to transition the puck better. We defend very well as a group. Our forwards need to do a continuing job of hopefully adding to the depth to our hockey club up front.
“Our goaltending is still where we feel is at an elite level. The rest of the players have to assume their own roles. Charlie really shouldn’t have any increased or added pressure. He’s been at that level. We’re going to continue to have him at that level, probably introduce a little more of the power play opportunities to him. As Griz will get opportunities and others will. [We’ll] see how far he can run with it. That’s part of this exercise. How far will the next young player go, and what level he will get [to].”
All that being said, it would answer a lot of questions for the Bruins if McAvoy takes a massive step forward offensively in terms of production, moving the puck as adeptly as he’s capable of and playing the physical brand of defense he hinted at last season.
McAvoy was third on the Bruins with 131 hits registered last season and led all B’s with 131 blocked shots, and those trends are going to need to continue along with some pumped up offense.
Those are part of the certainties the B’s do have on the back end.
The Bruins know what they have in McAvoy as a No. 1 defenseman, Brandon Carlo as a penalty killer and shutdown defense, and Grzelcyk as an efficient puck-moving D-man. The Bruins know that Connor Clifton is an agitating D-man capable of physical play and able to make offensive plays from time to time.
The Bruins know that Kevan Miller and John Moore are veteran defensemen options that can play when called upon, and will be able to handle sporadic playing time and uncertain roles on this year’s hockey club. That’s something they wouldn’t have been able to count on if they’d slotted the 43-year-old Chara into a reserve seventh D-man spot after he’s spent his entire career playing big minutes and playing all the time.
What the Bruins don’t know is exactly what Jakub Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen or Jeremy Lauzon will bring to the table in elevated roles?
Both the 23-year-old Zboril and the 21-year-old Vaakanainen are former first round picks entering a crossroads with the Bruins where it’s now-or-never for NHL gigs. Zboril has been okay at the AHL level as a two-way defenseman over the last couple of seasons, but there are legit questions as to whether he’s even an NHL player at this point.
Vaakanainen has shown flashes as an efficient puck-mover that can adequately defend along with moving the puck, and his skating game is a skill set that’s going to keep him in the NHL. But are either of those young, inexperienced players ready for a top-4 role on the Boston defense’s left side with both Chara and Krug game from the Bruins fold?
Furthermore, is the rugged, physical Lauzon ready to take on a regular role on the defense when it comes to killing penalties, waging war with opponents around the net and bringing the snarl that’s gone with Chara leaving?
The intimidating, physical play that Chara consistently brought to the table is something the Boston Bruins will need to replace, and they know it won’t be easy.
“It’s 6’9 and 250, it’s fairly unique to our sport. I’m not going to downplay [Chara’s presence] in any regard. He’s been a physical force on and off the ice for our hockey club and we’ll have to have some players assume that mantle,” said Sweeney. “It won’t be overnight, and it’ll have to be by committee. We certainly have players that aspire to play more of a physical role and the nature to get an opportunity to provide that to our hockey club.
“I think it’s part of the identity of our hockey club that needs to be continued. I’m sure our players will address it in the manner that we need to. We have to have that. We have to maintain that identity as a hockey club and be very, very difficult to play against.”
Clearly the Bruins feel encouraged that the young kids are ready to step up and fill the massive defensive void entering this season, but nobody will know for sure until the regular season gets going in a couple of weeks. And even if players like Zboril, Vaakanainen and Lauzon end up working out, there are undoubtedly going to be growing pains along the way introducing that many young guys to the defensive picture.
If there’s a part of the Bruins team that could really drag them down with a slow start, it’s a defensive corps that’s altered and primed for some bumps during a compacted 56-game season after a shortened training camp. It could be that two out of the three (Zboril, Vaakanainen and Lauzon) end up developing nicely for the Black and Gold in a season of transition for the B’s, but it’s also possible the Bruins simply fall flat on their faces without Chara and Krug.
The unknown is something to watch out for when it comes to Boston’s defensive picture because nobody really knows how it will all play out.