By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
If the Boston Bruins had a problem with Jeremy Lauzon’s illegal check to the head of Arizona’s Derek Stepan last week they sure had a funny of showing it, as the team welcomed Lauzon back from his brief ban with a two-year contract extension finalized on Friday afternoon. (I wonder if it would’ve been a four-year extension had the 22-year-old Lauzon truly gotten his money’s worth with the borderline hit and been handed a four-game suspension.)
The deal comes with a modest raise for Lauzon, as he’ll see a bump up from his $747,500 entry-level deal cap hit to $850,000 in both 2020-21 and 2021-22. And it’s also a win-win for both parties involved.
I know that we’re talking about a seven-game sample size to date, but I’m quite comfortable saying that Lauzon has been Boston’s sixth-best defenseman this year. He’s been a steadier three-zone presence than John Moore (two goals and an assist in 22 games since returning from a major shoulder injury), and Moore’s struggles were actually why you saw Lauzon recalled from Providence in the first place. Elsewhere on the roster, Connor Clifton’s game has been troubled by inconsistencies when it comes to his instinctual style of play (what makes him highly effective, really) and an injury that’s shelved him since Dec. 29. And Kevan Miller, who has not played since Apr. 4 last year, is still trying to work his way back from a twice-broken kneecap.
So while Lauzon hasn’t exactly competed against the Murderers’ Row of Boston d-men (this team has been loaded on the backend over the last three years) this time around, he’s absolutely taken his opportunity and refused to let go.
It’s very similar to what Clifton did for the B’s down the stretch last year, and the Jersey-born ‘Cliffy’ turned that run into a three-year, $3 million extension with the club at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season.
And Lauzon’s ceiling, by the way, might be even greater.
On the ice for 85 minutes of five-on-five play this season, the B’s have outscored the opposition 3-1 with the 2015 second-round draft choice patrolling the Boston blue this season. One of those goals belongs to Lauzon himself, too, as he blasted a puck through the Golden Knights’ Marc-Andre Fleury in the first game of his second B’s chance this season. The Bruins have out-chanced the opposition 36-28 with No. 79 out there, and Lauzon’s been particularly great in high-danger chances at five-on-five, as he’s been on the sheet for 13 for and just seven against over that 85-minute sample. That ratio is the best on the Bruins (Matt Grzelcyk is tops among all Boston defenders in that stat), and while there’s a few things at play there such as a limited sample size and Lauzon’s attacking zone-friendly usage, Lauzon’s work has extended beyond perfect situations.
Utilized as one of Boston’s penalty-killing defenders for nearly 15 minutes over his seven-game sample this season, Lauzon has proven to be more than serviceable with the Bruins down a man, and has battled to Bruce Cassidy’s liking. He’s happily blocked shots, he’s thrown his 6-foot-2 frame around, and he’s yet to find himself on the ice for a power-play goal against. There will come a time where Lauzon is victimized, of course, but to date he’s slid into the shorthanded perfectly, which has limited the strain on undersized, transition-first defenders like Grzelcyk and Torey Krug. (Huge.)
Getting a battler for $850,000 is always welcomed, and barring long-term injuries and/or his game falling off a complete, unplayable cliff, it prevents the Bruins from having to overextend themselves in the free agent and trade market.
And it’s that critical point that makes this deal another victory for Don Sweeney and the Bruins.
As of right now, the Bruins have $12.35 million committed to their blue line in 2020-21. Charlie McAvoy’s $4.9 million is the most expensive cap hit among that group, and Brandon Carlo’s $2.85 million is the second-most expensive. Now, that’s going to change (Krug’s free agent status looms over this team and Zdeno Chara could be looking for another deal), but Lauzon’s extension does nothing to change the Black and Gold’s ability to keep their blue line intact or potentially add to it.
Factor in a healthy Clifton and Miller and the Bruins planned on spending $22.65 million on their defense this year. Take their already-committed $12.35 million and the Bruins could spend $10.3 million on their own talent or outside talent to have the same figure next year. A long-term deal for Krug with a hometown discount (he’s talked openly about a potential discount to stay in Boston), a slight raise for Grzelcyk, and another one-year deal with Chara seems doable with that amount of space. Especially if Lauzon’s new extension makes Moore — who is probably fourth on your left-shot defensemen depth chart as of right now — and his $2.75 million cap hit a bit more expendable.
But let’s say Krug is not retained or if he becomes too rich for the B’s blood on an extension, you now have a third-pairing defenseman capable of playing in all three zones (and in all situations) under contract for under $900,000. That does not prevent from being players for the next best option on the free agent market or via trade.
I mean, you’re essentially talking about a potentially capable third pairing of Lauzon and Clifton — even if one is a No. 6 and the other is a No. 7 who draws in based on matchups and injuries — at the very worst. And combining for just $1.85 million.
This is the kind bottom-of-the-roster financial flexibility the Bruins have consistently maintained under Sweeney, and what’s allowed them to add or always be in the mix to add to this roster. That becomes even more important as the B’s continue to see talents like McAvoy, Carlo, and Jake DeBrusk (a 2020 restricted free agent) stay in Boston beyond their entry-level contracts.
And without that affordable depth — and capable affordable depth, at that — you can quickly find yourself rifling through the nearest dumpster looking for long shot answers (see: Toronto, and the Penguins and Blackhawks of yesteryear).
But that’s not something the B’s will have to worry about on their backend.