By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Bruins cannot replace Zdeno Chara.
It’s just not possible. You’re talking about a 42-year-old captain with 179 games of postseason experience, a ridiculous reach, and defensive-zone threat who even when struggling stands out as your top penalty-killing defender. Even at his worst (and that line has been tested at times this postseason), it’s laughable to even think that Chara’s absence is “addition by subtraction” or that one of the Black and Gold’s four remaining options can be a viable fill-in for Chara in Game 5.
But loading up on defensemen — even at the expense of a forward — may just be Bruce Cassidy’s bet at coming close to it.
I really don’t think it’s a coincidence that the B’s two losses in this series have come with the team losing a defenseman in the middle of the game. I really don’t. From defensive-zone chemistry to breakouts, the in-game loss of a defenseman has had a noticeable impact in both Game 2 when Grzelcyk was concussed and in Monday’s Game 4 loss with Chara out of play.
The Bruins were straight-up dominated when playing down a defenseman, actually.
The Bruins were outshot 27-16 and outscored 1-0 (Carl Gunnarsson’s overtime goal) upon Grzelcyk’s exit in Game 2, and were outshot by a staggering 25-9 mark and outscored 2-1 once a bloodied Chara made his way down the tunnel and did not return for another shift in Game 4. Add it up and the Bruins have been outshot 52-25 and outscored 3-1 when playing with five defenders. In both instances, puck-possession has come with the comfort of eating Skittles with a broken jaw, while d-zone exits have felt like concussed gazes at the sun.
Compare those (ugly) numbers to the B’s on-ice numbers when playing with six defensemen, which has seen them outshoot the Blues 83-72 and outscore them 14-8, and the story spells itself out.
The Bruins’ solution is to scratch one of their 12 forwards and load up with an extra defenseman.
It’s something Cassidy himself acknowledged this as a possibility when speaking with reporters on Tuesday.
“If we are out two D, [Matt Grzelcyk] and [Chara], we might have to play seven defensemen,” Cassidy admitted. “Putting guys in that haven’t played a ton. Maybe you got to look at how does this best work out to use a guy situationally, take Zee’s PK minutes, if the other guys match up, which of course would be reaching into an area that a young kid hasn’t played in the playoffs at all.”
Yes. Yes. Yes.
With a potential seven-defender configuration, there’s the obvious plus of putting yourself in a situation that allows you to handle the potential of an in-game injury better than you have in Games 2 and 4. Given the way St. Louis’ ridiculously aggressive forecheck has targeted your defenders this series, it’s not the worst plan of attack. I’d like to think that the Bruins wouldn’t lose two defensemen in the same game, but at this rate, I suppose anything’s possible. And, again and most importantly, the numbers back up the idea that the Bruins are a simply better team than the Blues when having a complete defense corps at their disposal.
There’s also the fact that this current group — should Chara and Grzelcyk remain out of action as expected — lacks left-shot defensemen behind Torey Krug and John Moore (his 19 minutes in Game 4 were his most in almost three months, which should speak to the B’s desperation on this side of their blue line). But unfortunately for the Bruins, the left-shot defenders remaining carry a grand total of 20 games of NHL experience between Jeremy Lauzon (16 games), Urho Vaakanainen (two games), and Jakub Zboril (two games), meaning banking on them being your savior is shortsighted at best. Right-shot defenseman Steve Kampfer, who last played in Game 1 of the team’s third-round series against the Hurricanes and is considered the logical choice to jump into action, has experience, but would give the Bruins a defensive look with four right-shots and just two lefties. Connor Clifton can be moved to the left (he played to the left of Brandon Carlo late in the regular season), but it’s not exactly the most natural fit, and Clifton as a whole is very hit or miss.
Electing to go with one of the left-shot kids as your sixth or seventh defenseman — and with Kampfer also in action — allows you to keep that left-right balance Cassidy prefers, but doesn’t marry you to a youngster not ready for the moment.
The other possibility with a seven-defender formation — and this is something that seems like a total long shot, I admit — is that the Bruins try to dress Chara or Grzelcyk and see if they can contribute in a limited role, if deemed medically able. Having that backup of a seventh defenseman (most likely Kampfer in this hypothetical) allows the Bruins to adjust if game conditions prove to be too much for either player. This is not available to the Bruins in a traditional 12-F, 6-D look.
But, again, if the B’s go with seven defenders, a forward has to come out.
That alone seems manageable for the Bruins.
“I think we can manage,” Cassidy said of a potential 11-forward look. “We’ve used different guys, double-shifted throughout the year. So that part doesn’t worry me as much as how is it going to affect the young kid coming out of the lineup.”
And if there’s a forward to be scratched from Cassidy’s Game 5 lineup, it’s hard to look at anybody other than David Backes.
I suggest this while completely understanding that Backes is not your traditional healthy scratch. Not from an experience standpoint (especially with Chara likely unavailable in this scenario) or from an adapting to the style of the opponent standpoint. But it’s become simply impossible to find Backes’ positive impact on this series through four games.
On a line with Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci, Backes has posted four straight 0-0-0 nights, and has not played more than 10:21 in any of the contests, speaking to Cassidy’s issues with icing Backes in a top-six role in 2019. Cassidy has tried to kickstart this line, too, with a team-high 19 offensive-zone faceoffs, but the DeBrusk-Krejci-Backes trio has been on the ice for just 13 five-on-five shots on goal, and has yet to record a high-danger chance against the Blues. Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final and locked into a best-of-three for the Stanley Cup is not the time to try and find a home for the veteran Backes, either, especially when your third line and fourth line have played as well as both the Coyle and Kuraly have in this series.
Universally respected as a leader both on and off the ice, so much of Backes’ value to this team in 2019 keeps back to the idea that he can keep the opposition honest from a physical standpoint. But the truth is that the Bruins are getting absolutely crushed by the Blues on almost every single shift, and the presence of the ex-Blues captain has done absolutely nothing to deter the Blues. Fourth-line center Oskar Sundqvist returned from his suspension with just as much physicality as he had when he concussed Grzelcyk in Game 2, and the Blues were not afraid to wrestle with Backes at every stoppage.
You love Backes’ heart, and you love his will, but it’s simply not doing the job for the Bruins at this point of the series.
Now, removing Backes from the lineup would probably put the Bruins in a scenario that sees members of their third line double-shifted as the right winger for the DeBrusk and Krejci combination. The good news is that all three members of the Johansson-Coyle-Heinen line have played at least 50 minutes with DeBrusk and Krejci this season, and that all three members of the line have positive differentials in both shots (their plus-12 with Johansson on the right is tops) and scoring chances (a plus-9 with Coyle skating with DeBrusk and Krejci is the best among the three there) when with No. 46 and No. 74. David Pastrnak is also an option, and a great one at that, should the Bruins need to expand their double-shifting to four.
And at this point, inserting players from your third line in an attempt to bring your struggling top six back to life actually seems worth it, and it’s something Cassidy has tried at various points since Backes first rejoined the lineup.
Same for dressing an extra defenseman.
So let’s get weird with it.