By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Things will look awfully different for the Boston Bruins in 2021.
Particularly on the backend, as Zdeno Chara, the Black and Gold’s 6-foot-9 cornerstone of 14 years has packed his bags and moved to Washington as a member of the Capitals. It’s part of what the Bruins are calling a youth movement on their backend, particularly on the left side, with three prospects vying for jobs on this year’s NHL squad.
“I think it’s really about the coaching and the encouragement aspect of these players getting their bearings and understanding the situations they’re going to be put in,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said of the opportunities in front of their young defenders. “They have to rise up and take that challenge. Some of them have been sitting, percolating, as we say, in the development process and playing all those key integrated minutes in Providence and getting opportunities up here but being sheltered at times. And they’re hopefully ready to take that ball and run with it.”
The idea is a solid one. It’s also not the first time the Bruins have tried, having succeeded with both Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy in 2016 and then 2017. The problem this time around, of course, is that the Bruins are essentially trying to replace 41 minutes of top-four play between Chara and Torey Krug. It’s not just one player or one opening.
But here’s who the Bruins are bringing to their camp to fill those openings…
Jack Ahcan: A 5-foot-8 defender, Ahcan is jumping right into the mix with a pro training camp after totaling seven goals and 25 points in 33 games for St. Cloud State in 2019-20. Ahcan collegiate career featured 21 goals and 103 points in 144 games for SCSU, and with career-highs in assists (28), points (34), and plus-minus (plus-30) in 2018-19. Ahcan appeared in two games for the ECHL’s Jacksonville IceMen before reporting to B’s camp. The Bruins have been relatively proactive when it comes to finding a potential offensive d-man diamond in the rough on the college free agent market, with Cooper Zech signed before Ahcan’s addition to the mix. (Torey Krug, of course, was the big one, back in 2012.)
Brandon Carlo: With Chara gone, this blue line belongs to Charlie McAvoy? But the Boston penalty kill? That belongs to Brandon Carlo. Boston’s second-most deployed killer last season, Carlo’s nightly 3:07 of shorthanded time on ice in 2019-20 was a career-best by a solid 20 seconds, beating his 2:47 average over the last two seasons. On the ice for 208:22 of shorthanded work in all, it’s worth mentioning that Chara was to Carlo’s left for 162 minutes of that 208-minute sample.
Who replaces Chara next to Carlo on PK-D1 is still up in the air (I’d bet Lauzon), but it’s a pairing now driven by Carlo. There’s an obvious sample size issue when comparing Carlo with vs. without Chara on the kill last year, but the Bruins actually surrendered fewer goals against per 60 with Carlo out there without Chara (5.17 vs. 7.02), but surrendered about four more shots on goal and over five more scoring chances per 60 minutes.
The Bruins will always want more offense from Carlo at five-on-five, too, and now that he isn’t the GTFB option opposite Torey Krug, it’s entirely possible that Carlo will build off what was a career-high 15 helpers and 19 points last season.
Connor Clifton: Watching Connor Clifton up close is like watching violence on ice. It’s beautiful. Everything is just so chaotic, aggressive, and impactful. The Bruins certainly want to see Clifton get back to bringing that on a nightly basis after injuries and inconsistencies at times robbed him of his swagger in 2019-20.
Matt Grzelcyk: Torey Krug’s departure meant that Matt Grzelcyk would move from the third pairing to the second pairing in 2021. Then Zdeno Chara’s exit made it official that Grzelcyk was the B’s best option as their top left-side defenseman. It’s a big jump. Now, the former’s departure will likely give the Charlestown, Mass. native the ability to grow as a power-play quarterback, while the latter’s will open up the potential for Grzelcyk to grow in his own zone.
Offensively, Grzelcyk was at his best last year, with career-highs in goals (four), assists (17), points (21), and power-play points (seven). And on the power play, Grzelcyk was actually a solid threat when out there with the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak pillars of Boston’s top power-play unit, scoring five goals on 22 shots in nearly 25 minutes of Grzelcyk running the top unit.
But the Bruins are going to have to make sure they’re not asking too much too quickly out of Grzelcyk.
“Defensively, there will be a little more responsibility in matchup situations,” Sweeney said of Grzelcyk’s increased role in 2021. “Whether he can handle that increased role and beyond whatever it is, that 19-20-minute threshold remains to be seen. We have to be careful there in terms of breaking down, where players begin to breakdown and inefficiencies start to arise. We do monitor that with all of our players. But the opportunity is in front of Matt and we’ll see how far he can run with that.”
It’s worth noting that Grzelcyk has played over 24 minutes just four times in his entire NHL career.
Steven Kampfer: Citing the congenital heart issues that both his wife and young child deal with, the 32-year-old Kampfer opted out of the NHL restart last summer. But he’ll be back for the B’s this season, and after totaling three goals and five helpers in 45 games since returning to the Black and Gold in a 2018 trade with the Rangers.
Jeremy Lauzon: The 6-foot-2 Lauzon gave you a strong sample during the stretch run of the 2019-20 season, but was one of the B’s who struggled in the Toronto bubble, sitting as a scratch in seven of Boston’s 10 playoff contests.
But the B’s are clearly relying on Lauzon to pick up what would’ve been Chara’s shorthanded time on ice in 2021.
“He’s a bigger body, he’s bigger than people think; he’s about 215 pounds. He’s not 6-foot-9, but he’s a big guy and he can do some of the things that Zee brings to the table in terms of shutting down good players, playing hard against good players,” Cassidy said of Lauzon earlier this offseason. “[Lauzon]’s got some work to do on the penalty kill to get where Zee’s at but that’s another area where we feel he can help us.”
In 32:34 of shorthanded action from Jan. 31 to Mar. 10, the Bruins surrendered just one power-play goal with Lauzon out there as a killer, and Lauzon killed as the NHL’s 11th-best shot suppressor over that run (46.1 shots against per 60 minutes).
Charlie McAvoy: This is McAvoy’s blue line now. It’s time to see him take flight.
I would argue that we’ve seen this building really since the 2019 playoffs, but there’s really no safety net there now.
“We don’t want Charlie to change the way he plays in regards to who he’s playing with,” Sweeney said last week when asked about McAvoy losing his veteran partner of three seasons. “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. He just has to go out and play the way that Charlie is capable of playing.”
McAvoy’s ceiling will be this defense’s ceiling. Even if the Bruins don’t want to put the pressure on him.
Kevan Miller: It’s been 21 months since Kevan Miller last played in an NHL game. That didn’t stop the Bruins from making Miller their top priority when free agency opened this past offseason. Nobody knows if and when he’ll be 100 percent. But I’m really curious to see how Miller looks when he eventually takes the ice. One noticeable thing about Miller’s game before the four knee surgeries derailed him? His dramatic improvements as a skater. He was becoming more of a threat when it came to subtly activations and generating opportunities. It may be wishful thinking to hope he still has that burst and confidence after so much time away.
John Moore: If the kids aren’t ready — or even if the kids are ready — you might be looking at a 2021 Bruins team with John Moore as its second-best left-shot defenseman. Moore’s been a top-four defender before. Hell, he came to Boston after establishing himself as a top-four option for an upstart Devils team that made an improbable run to the postseason in 2018. But there’s also the fact that Moore has been healthy scratched in 29 percent of his available games in Boston. It’s a big jump.
Urho Vaakanainen: The B’s first-round pick from the 2017 NHL Draft, Vaakanainen has totaled over 102 minutes of NHL ice-time over the last two seasons. There really hasn’t been anything too flashy (or anything much of note at all) during that sample, and Bruce Cassidy was critical of Vaakanainen’s practice habits last year. But Vaak’s 2019-20 in Providence saw the Finnish product learn how to become more of an offensive threat, with an AHL-career best five goals and 14 points.
“He’s always gonna have that defensive aspect to his game, always gonna be competitive,” said Leach. “But the offensive stuff is starting to come bit more naturally to him and that’s just fine with us.”
Nick Wolff: Another NCAA to NHL training camp talent, the 6-foot-4 Wolff is turning pro after a collegiate career at University of Minnesota-Duluth that included 14 goals and 53 points and a plus-59 rating during his four-season run. The Bruins can take comfort in the fact that Wolff played pro hockey in Slovakia during the NHL’s return-to-play talks, and scored three goals and two assists in 18 games for the Miskolci DVTK Polar Bears.
Jakub Zboril: It’s been almost six years since the Bruins made Jakub Zboril the No. 13 overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. He is one of two players from that first round yet to emerge as a full-time NHL player (Zach Senyshyn is the other). The Bruins have revved up the Zboril hype train entering this season, and P-Bruins head coach Jay Leach was happy with Zboril’s finish to a pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season.
The only set-in-stone option on the Bruins’ left side is Matt Grzelcyk. Likely opposite Charlie McAvoy, too.
So who gets the call on the second and third pairings? Well, that depends on complexion. If the Bruins want to a pair a more active defender with Carlo on the second pair, John Moore (a career-high 12 goals and 22 points in 2017) feels like their best bet. But if the Bruins are hellbent on giving ‘the kids’ the chance to shine and play a major role, perhaps they go for a full shutdown look with one of Lauzon, Zboril, or Vaakanainen with Carlo. Lauzon would feel like the betting favorite here, really, based on experience and his defensive know-how. This would almost serve as a somewhat smaller version of the Chara-Carlo pairing of yesteryear, with each defender possessing a massive reach that’ll cover a ton of ground.
If that’s their play, the third pairing becomes an interesting one. It’s hard to imagine Moore sitting as the fourth-best option on the left side for the third year in a row (especially with this group), but the Bruins really wanna find out what they have here with Zboril and Vaakanainen. This one may come down to who it is on the right side of Boston’s third pair.
And that’s a bit of an unknown right now, too.
Lauzon and Connor Clifton split duties at this spot last year, but Miller’s back and healthy, and Kampfer is back with the Bruins after opting out of the postseason. Those are four completely different players, so again, this one may come down to who the Bruins view as the most compatible fit with whoever wins the LHD3 gig. If Lauzon moves back to his natural left side, I’d almost have to peg Clifton as the favorite given his versatility, but Miller’s right there (if healthy).
- Is Kevan Miller actually healthy? We haven’t seen the 33-year-old Miller on the ice and in action since Apr. 4, 2019. Now, the Bruins have said all the right things about Miller, and Miller has repeatedly said that he will be ready to go when the season gets underway, but we’re definitely at the “believe it when we see it” point of this recovery. If healthy, Miller adds some bite to a backend that’ll certainly need it with its 6-foot-9, 270-pound monster off to Washington.
- Will Grzelcyk be the answer at the top of the left-side depth chart? There’s a lot to like about Grzelcyk’s limited sample with McAvoy. (It probably helps that their relationship dates back to their Hockey East days at Boston University.) But if Grzelcyk can’t hang as a top-pairing d-man, things have the potential to get ugly. Real ugly.
- Can the kids actually play? Nobody knows. Jeremy Lauzon is the closest bet to a sure thing. And even then…
The Blind Predictions
- Jakub Zboril, not Urho Vaakanainen, wins a job on Boston’s opening night roster.
- We see Nick Wolff with the Big B’s at some point during the 2021 season.
- Charlie McAvoy or Brandon Carlo enters the season as one of the B’s other alternate captains.