By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
OK, let’s be honest, it stopped being a one-goal contest long ago. I’ve been scoreboard-chasing for years now. (I’m just happy there’s no relegation involved.) But when it comes to the B’s decision to go with their young defensemen over another season of the soon-to-be 44-year-old Zdeno Chara, it would appear that the Bruins most definitely knew what they were doing.
“We made a calculated decision,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said. “I think we talked about that right before the season started [and] at the end of our last season that we were going to incorporate some of these young guys. How that happened, we weren’t exactly sure, but we had a good idea what we wanted to do, and this is how it ends up playing out.
“We thought that these kids would be ready to go in and compete, give us good minutes.”
Through 11 games, the Bruins’ 18 points stand as the most in the East Division, and their .818 point percentage trails only the Golden Knights and Lightning through the first month of the season. Think about this: It took a double-deflection to deny the Bruins a point in their only regulation loss of the season to date. That’s insane. And that young defense has a lot to do with it.
Beginning with Chara’s direct replacement, Jeremy Lauzon, it’s almost impossible to imagine the Bruins asking for more out of the 6-foot-2 defender. Moving from a healthy scratch in 70 percent of the B’s playoff games last year to top-pairing defenseman, Lauzon’s tallied two assists and has delivered 19:54 of serviceable hockey through 11 appearances this year.
As expected, there’s been a few hiccups along the way, whether it be getting turned inside out or lapses when it comes to in the slot coverage, but Lauzon’s been value-add every night, and his penalty-killing work has been phenomenal.
Asked to be Boston’s top left-shot killer with the 6-foot-9 Chara out of town, Lauzon’s 41:07 of shorthanded time on ice currently stands as the 17th-most among all NHL defensemen. The opposition has scored just two goals over that 41-minute sample, and they’ve landed just 26 shots on goal over that span. Break it down into per-60 rates and Lauzon’s on ice for just 37.94 shots against per 60 (sixth-best in the NHL) and just 2.92 goals against per 60 (fourth-best in the NHL). He has also dished out 10 hits over that 41-minute sample, which is the most among 48 defensemen with at least 30 minutes of shorthanded time on ice this season, and breaks down to a ridiculous nearly 15 hits per 60 minutes rate.
His success has been the team’s success, too, as the Bruins have killed off 36 of their 41 trips to the penalty box this season, with that 87.8 percent success rate the second-best in the NHL, trailing only the Avalanche’s 89.7 percent mark.
And you’re beginning to see Lauzon’s offensive game come to light, too. In addition to landing at least one shot on goal in all but one of his showings this season, Lauzon came through with an absolutely beautiful feed to Craig Smith on the game-tying goal in Boston’s three-goal comeback win over the Capitals during last week’s 3-0-1 road trip.
“We’re seeing very consistent hockey out of him,” Cassidy said of Lauzon’s start to 2021. “I think he’s gotten better almost every night. Puck skills are coming around. We knew that would take time.”
On the third pairing, Jakub Zboril has gone from complete wild card after a totally forgettable two-game showing in 2018-19 to nightly fixture, and with more experienced options like Connor Clifton (who looked more than solid during his fill-in for Matt Grzelcyk but will return to the press box upon his return) and John Moore unable to bump him out of the rotation.
Stapled to Kevan Miller’s hip since camp began, Zboril’s start has included two assists and 18 hits through 11 games, but with a noticeable uptick in his confidence throughout that run.
The Bruins have done their part to bolster that confidence — Zboril has been gifted 44 offensive-zone starts at even strength (tops among all B’s defenders and the second most among all Boston skaters) and has spent nearly 33 percent of his even-strength ice-time with at least one of Patrice Bergeron and/or Brad Marchand — but it’s yet to vanish into thin air.
Zboril has taken chances, he’s unleashed his heavier shot with a bit more frequency, and he continues to see the ice well.
“Zboril was the wild card,” Cassidy admitted. “I got to say, he’s been very good. I think there’s been games where he has to get his motor going a little more a little more focus, but to be expected for younger guys. I would say we’re we’re content with where they’re at and what they’ve brought. And I think it’s team defense every night for us, so you’re also putting them in situations where they are on the ice for good centers that know the game well and we’ll help them out with good goaltending.
“I think there’s layers of protection there for them every night. And so it’s just up to them to do their job. Just go and do your job: move pucks, defend well, make a good first pass, and make a play when the opportunity arises. So far, so good.
“I think we need a bigger sample size to truly evaluate where they’re at. But right now they’re doing what’s asked of them.”
But the biggest boost of all has without question been Charlie McAvoy’s successful liftoff as the face of the B’s backend.
After three seasons and four postseasons of on-job training with Chara, McAvoy has taken the reins of the defense and put up 10 points and carried a team-leading 24:24 nightly load through the first 11 games of the season.
Standing as one of just 63 NHL defensemen to log at least 200 even-strength minutes this season, McAvoy ranks first in Corsi-For percentage (58.15 percent), first in Shots-For percentage (63.89 percent), third in Expected Goals-For percentage (63.54 percent), and fourth in High-Danger Chances-For percentage (59.74 percent). McAvoy’s also near the top of every individual offensive category, too. In other words, the B’s dominate the puck and are making teams sweat whenever No. 73 is on the ice. And McAvoy’s put up those gaudy advanced digits while beginning less than 50 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone.
“The biggest change is probably a little more freedom,” Cassidy said of McAvoy’s 2021 rise. “I think Charlie’s just a little more fluid in all areas. I see him attacking more in the offensive zone, certainly taking a few more pucks down low.”
Cassidy also talked about McAvoy is also more ‘assertive’ now that he’s the more experienced member of his defensive pairing, and that he’s no longer deferring when an opportunity presents itself.
He’s provided the offense, the nasty, and everything in between. He’s taken chances to spark comebacks, and he’s been asked to close out games. He’s been everything the Bruins needed him to be when moving on from Chara and Krug.
Of course, the decision to move on from Chara and Torey Krug, and not add an Oliver Ekman-Larsson will not be judged on an 11-game opening sample, as Cassidy noted. Or even by Game 56 of this abbreviated season. No matter how promising it may be. Its true judgement day will instead come when we see how these players react to packed houses in both Boston and on the road, and how they handle the high intensity of playoff contests and the potential highs and lows of a deep playoff run.
In the now, however, the Bruins will take their lead on the scoreboard.