There are plenty of question marks surrounding the Boston Bruins as they begin an abbreviated training camp today in advance of the 56-game shortened 2021 NHL season but there are none bigger than what will become of the left side of their defense this season and going forward?
“Good luck with that!” an NHL scout told Boston Hockey Now Sunday night.
Gone are longtime captain Zdeno Chara, 43, and Torey Krug, 29, and into the lineup are the kids in Jakub Zboril, 23 Jeremy Lauzon, 23, and potentially 22-year-old Urho Vaakanainen. With such uncertainty on the left side now, many NHL insiders were left wondering when the Boston Bruins finally announced their 2021 training camp roster and schedule, why they didn’t sign or bring in an unrestricted free agent left-shot defenseman via a professional tryout contract?
“I’m surprised they didn’t bring in [Sami] Vatanen,” an NHL team management member asked in a phone conversation with Boston Hockey Now late Sunday afternoon. “He’d have been a perfect fit for now. A solid stop-gap on the left side while the kids filter in.”
Vatanen, 29, Karl Alzner, 32, and Ben Hutton, 27, were all left-shot UFA defensemen that the Boston Bruins had been linked to throughout the offseason and more so in recent weeks. As of early Sunday evening, none of them had been signed so there is still a chance the Bruins could add them. One NHL source did indicate that the Bruins had more conversations with Vatanen this weekend and that was potentially the holdup for not releasing the roster until Sunday morning, the day camp officially began.
As for the players the Boston Bruins essentially chose to say goodbye to, those self-inflicted departures left many around the league thinking there had to be a counter move. Now that camp has arrived and it’s clear that Boston Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney’s counter is to go with a youth movement on the blue line, NHL insiders are questioning the timing. Why the Bruins feel that with their Stanley Cup window closing and in a shortened season where anything is possible, that this is the time for a youth movement left a longtime NHL scout puzzled.
“Why now? I just don’t get it to be honest,” said the veteran scout who has watched both the Boston Bruins and Providence Bruins closely since before Sweeney took over for Peter Chiarelli following the 2014-15 season. They know their Cup window is closing and you kind of get a gift here with a shortened season and realigned divisions and playing every other day. …it’s really going to be a crapshoot with who wins the Cup.
They had one of the best penalty killers in the league still in Chara and the best powerplay quarterback in the NHL hands down in Torey Krug. From what I hear, he was a leader to the kids too so if you’re bringing kids in, why would you let two leaders like that walk?”
When asked to describe a Boston Bruins blue line and a team that for the first time since the 2005-06 season, won’t have their now former 6-foot-9, 250-pound captain patrolling the left side on the top pairing, the same scout had this to say:
“No one will be scared of them anymore, that I can assure you. Even if Chara had come back in a limited role, it still would have given them that fear factor. …especially on the penalty kill. They already showed they were too small to handle the Lightning this year and the Blues the year before and now they let Chara go?
Even against the Capitals they’ve had trouble matching up down low and now the one guy who could do it for them is playing for the Caps. They’re about to get a heavy dose of what they basically said ‘we can live without’. Look no one is saying that ‘Zee’ hasn’t lost a step, because clearly, he has, but still, I think they’re going to regret that.”
As for the offense from the blue line and powerplay points that Krug, the longtime Bruins powerplay quarterback, took with him when he too saw the writing on the wall that his time was done with the Boston Bruins and signed with the St. Louis Blues?
“Yeah, maybe they get some of that from [Matt] Grzelcyk and [Charlie] McAvoy but they had a premiere powerplay specialist in Krug that obviously based on what (St. Louis Blues GM) Doug [Armstrong] gave him, was clearly undervalued in Boston,” the scout said.
Sweeney, a former NHL defenseman himself, seemed at ease with this gameplan when addressing the media recently.
“We do have to spread those minutes around. Situations as I described earlier, that some other players have not been exposed to,” Sweeney said when pressed on the matter this past Thursday. “Whether or not they’re capable of, I certainly believe that they would like to be in those situations and aspire to be in those situations. We’re going to do it by committee and allow some of these guys a little bit of trial and error and potentially fail as a result of it. But also succeed as a result of it and not look over their shoulder in any way, shape, or form because they have to gain that experience.”
However, it appears not just Boston Bruins fans and the media covering the team are puzzled at Sweeney’s plan for a defense that just a season ago, had one of the deepest left sides in the NHL.