By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Welcome to the second part of a three-part series previewing the 2018-19 Boston Bruins. Click here for the first part, which focused in on Boston’s forward unit, and its countless forwards looking to avoid a second-year slump.
Kicking off the most comprehensive coverage in town, we take a look at a Boston defensive mix that may have finally found the heir apparent to the ageless Zdeno Chara with second-year NHLer Charlie McAvoy. And with a reinforced supporting cast built with the idea of pushing this team deeper into the postseason, and with fewer redundancies.
Brandon Carlo: At 6-foot-4, and with mobility to his name, Brandon Carlo is a modern day NHL coach’s dream. But last year was a fascinating one, as the Bruins consistently found themselves asking for more. Namely, they wanted Carlo to even slightly try to be more of an offensive threat, or give the illusion that he could create offense from the point.
Carlo knew this, too. One of his biggest offseason focuses? Walking the blue line with the puck in search of offense.
Now, if Carlo is paired with Torey Krug for the season season in a row, finding offensive chances to shine may be a little hard to come by given the ‘GTFB’ approach that may come with playing opposite a risk-taking, pace-pusher like Krug. But when paired with John Moore — or perhaps reunited with Chara — the opportunities for Carlo to take those strides and subsequent chances into the attacking zone should be there, and seized by the third-year pro.
Zdeno Chara: While everybody’s drooling over the body-obsessed 41-year-old playing in Foxboro, the Bruins have a similarly-dedicated 41-year-old of their own, and his name is Zdeno Chara. Still the No. 1 defenseman on Boston’s depth chart, Chara is coming off a year in which the Bruins attempted to limit their captain’s workload, with a Bruins career-low 22:54 of time on ice per night. The Bruins will continue to work towards that (he logs almost no power-play time on ice and the Bruins give him shifts off when leading big in the third period), but the schedule and B’s record will ultimately dictate how that works out. Here’s something to consider: Just two defenseman have logged at least 1,600 total minutes of time on ice in their Age-41 season — Chris Chelios in 2002-03 and Nicklas Lidstrom in 2011-12.
Matt Grzelcyk: The 24-year-old Grzelcyk was part of a pairing that finished the 2017-18 season with the league’s eighth-best goal differential. How did that start for the Charlestown, Mass. native? With tremendous, often patient stick and footwork when challenging the opposition beginning at the Boston blue line and into the defensive zone.
Torey Krug: Despite a summer of rumors that pegged Krug as the B’s best trade chip for help on the wings, the 5-foot-9 defenseman is still a Bruin, and honestly, you should probably be pretty happy about that.
Coming off a year in which Krug set career-highs in goals (14), assists (45), and points (59), the 27-year-old Krug’s puck-moving skills are still irreplaceable for the B’s blue line. (In fact, those 59 points were the most by any Boston defender since Ray Bourque posted a point-per-game year over 20 years ago.) Krug is still an immensely important part of Boston’s top power-play unit, too, as a left-handed shot on a power play that loves to funnel pucks to the half wall and then to Patrice Bergeron in the bumper for what’s proved to be an almost unstoppable play when timed right.
(Krug, of course, will miss at least the first three weeks of the 2018-19 season due to an ankle injury.)
Charlie McAvoy: Listen, McAvoy is the next guy for this team. That’s not a debate. It’s just a matter of when it happens.
For some elite defenders, it happens in their second full NHL season. Drew Doughty, for example, experience a 32-point uptick in his production from his first season to his season. For others, it happens in their third or fourth year, like P.K. Subban, who captured the Norris Trophy in his fourth NHL season.
But McAvoy’s preseason showed that the 20-year-old still has plenty to work on, and he knows it. The best part about that, though? McAvoy is a highly motivated player with the self-awareness of a 15-year vet. Don’t be surprised if he comes out of the gate absolutely flying following the so-so preseason showings.
Kevan Miller: Remember when we all threw our hands up about the four-year, $10 million extension the Bruins handed Miller back in 2016? Turns out the California-born defenseman, who can play both the left and right side and eats penalty-kill minutes for the fun of it, is pretty talented when not forced into a role as a top-pairing defenseman.
John Moore: Moore comes to Boston after recording seven goals and 18 points for the Devils a season ago. The 18 points ranked as the fourth-most among Devil defenders while his 141 shots on goal ranked as the most on the New Jersey blue line. Moore also set a personal career-high in time-on-ice per game, with 20:01 per night.
He’s here by way of a five-year deal worth $13.75 million, and with the expectation that he’ll ease some of the hard minutes logged by left-side leader Zdeno Chara. Especially on the penalty kill, where Chara frequently logged full two-minute shifts (a disaster waiting to happen if the Bruins rack up penalties at the rate they did in the preseason).
And though limited in terms of his shorthanded deployment as a whole for the Devils a season ago, Moore was among the league’s best when it came to limiting chances against, and even showed an ability to push pace the other way when shorthanded. Only Brenden Dillon and Erik Karlsson had better possession percentages among defenders with at least 120 shorthanded minutes last season, and his scoring-chance percentage was actually tops in the league, meaning the Devils actually created some offense with Moore on the ice killing penalties.
NEXT IN LINE
The 19-year-old Urho Vaakanainen is the undeniable next man up when the Bruins need it. He looks every bit ready for it, too, as his preseason came with countless smart reads, a solid pace, and more offensive flair than advertised.
And if and when that happens this season, Vaakanainen would be become the third Bruin in the last three years to essentially go straight to the NHL, following in the footsteps of Carlo in 2016, and McAvoy in 2017. But based on his resume to date, the Bruins hardly consider that a shocking step for the 2017 first-round pick to take this season.
“Urho’s played against pros the past two years in an elite level in Finland, played a lot of minutes in a lot of situations, was not protected at all last year in those situations,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said. “So, we tracked that pretty carefully last year in knowing that he could make the jump this year, be it with us or in Providence and play back in those situations. He’s got poise, patience, great skater, covers a lot of ice, so he’s got to continue to get stronger and understand the physicality that he’s going to face if and when he plays. Has he passed other players? He’s performed better than some of the other players and some of the other players have been injured through this process as well and missed some time as a result. So, the jockeying begins as it does in every position, and again nobody’s boxed out it’s just a matter of he’s taking advantage of the opportunity that he’s been given and good for him.”
Steven Kampfer, who scored five goals and 12 points in 48 games with the Bruins between 2010 and 2012, is back for his season run with the Bruins. Essentially the organization’s eighth defenseman for a fraction of what you were slated to pay Adam McQuaid this season (Kampfer makes $650,000 while McQuaid is on the hook for $2.75 million this season), Kampfer is the Bruins’ emergency plan, and seems to be the first one in once an injury strikes a right-shot defender.
You have to wonder if and when Jakub Zboril makes the NHL leap. One of just three first-round picks from the 2015 NHL Draft yet to make his NHL debut (teammate Zach Senyshyn and the Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov is the other), an injury completely derailed Zboril’s training camp, and puts him in Providence for his second straight season. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Zboril getting an extra year of seasoning in the minors, of course, but the problem is that Vaakanainen could very well usurp him on Boston’s organizational depth chart.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Even with two separate transactions, the Bruins’ strengths and weaknesses seem to be exactly what they were a year ago.
On the right side, the Bruins seem loaded. McAvoy and Carlo is as solid and versatile a one-two right-side duo a team can build around, and Kevan Miller on the third pairing at $2.5 million has quickly become of the team’s best bargains. Their success came at the expense of veteran Adam McQuaid, who was shipped to the New York Rangers before the start of camp, as there was absolutely no way he was bumping any of those players out of Boston’s right-side rotation.
To the left, however, the Bruins are still full of question marks behind Zdeno Chara. Torey Krug is what he is (an elite offensive defenseman), but the Bruins’ front office obviously believes he and Matt Grzelcyk are too similar for the Bruins to dress them both at the same time come postseason time. To address that, the Bruins signed free agent John Moore.
But Moore is not that ‘top four’ defenseman that the Bruins truly need. He may have been a top-four defenseman on the New Jersey Devils, but that was more of a commentary on the Devils’ depth issues at defense than it was Moore’s success. Prices and situations were obviously different, but if you’re expecting Moore to be anything even comparable to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s addition (and re-signing) of Ryan McDonagh, you’re going to be disappointed.
Now, he can still be an effective d-man, but that will likely come on the Black and Gold’s third pairing, meaning Krug or Grzelcyk are back in the situation the Bruins would seemingly prefer to avoid, and that’s with them in their top four.
There’s a sect of Bruins fans that are downright hellbent on trading Torey Krug. Why? Because the Bruins have a built-in replacement for Krug in Matt Grzelcyk. Right now, that theory is complete nonsense. And it will continue to be nonsense until Grzelcyk proves that he’s actually a Krug-level replacement. That comes with an improved display of Grzelcyk’s o-zone instincts and decision-making, which I think you saw spurts of during Grzelcyk’s limited preseason, as well as a shot that’s more of a threat to beat goaltenders than it was in 2017-18. If Grzelcyk can deliver on that and still be an impactful defender in his own zone, then the Bruins can legitimately entertain the idea of moving on from Krug for help elsewhere.
Zdeno Chara – Charlie McAvoy
John Moore – Brandon Carlo
Matt Grzelcyk – Kevan Miller
(Injured: Torey Krug)
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. He has also been a voting member of the Boston Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association since 2013. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Ty? Follow him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.