The Bruins decided to say goodbye to over 40 minutes of top-four defensive play this past offseason, opting not to extend Torey Krug or bring back Zdeno Chara for what would’ve been a 15th season in Boston. Relying on mere in-house options, the move was Bruins general manager Don Sweeney’s biggest gamble yet. It was one that ultimately did not pay off, either, as the Bruins’ defensive depth once again went to absolute hell in the club’s second-round series loss to the Islanders.
And to the surprise of absolutely no one who watched this past season and postseason, fixing that seems to be at the top of the agenda for Sweeney and team president Cam Neely this offseason.
“The elusive left D we’ve been looking for that can chew up a lot of minutes [and] maybe play on the second pairing with Carlo,” Neely said when talking about the Black and Gold’s offseason wish list. “That’d be more of a shutdown or some puck movement. Some offensive blue line acumen. As we saw, you can never have enough D and we never seem to have enough.”
To Neely’s point, the Bruins’ season ended with Connor Clifton in a top-four role, and midseason waiver wire pickup Jarred Tinordi in the lineup as one of Boston’s six best defensemen available. Definitely not how they drew it up back in January. Now, that’s not entirely their fault. The Bruins obviously didn’t plan on losing right-side stabilizers Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller to concussions, nor did they expect a stop-and-start year for Jeremy Lauzon due to injuries on both hands.
“For some reason or another, we get banged up,” Neely, whose team has experienced a significant on the loss on the backend in four of the last five postseason runs, acknowledged. “I think our D this year had maybe eight concussions, which is something I don’t know how to combat.”
But — and once again to Neely’s point — the Bruins’ left side, for the most part, was what it was.
Jakub Zboril’s sink or swim 2021 season seemed to be more of the former for the 2015 first-round pick after he appeared in just five games after the trade deadline, and while Matt Grzelcyk thrived when not battling injuries, his inability to stay upright and/or play on two pairs at the same time forced the Bruins to swing a deadline deal for Mike Reilly. Lauzon, again, struggled to keep his hands out of splints and casts, and 2017 first-round pick Urho Vaakanainen took flight for just nine games in 2021.
It was a lost season for the Bruins’ veteran depth option, too, as John Moore underwent season-ending hip surgery in March after appearing in just five games.
There doesn’t seem to be a magical solution on the horizon.
“That position is something that we’ve been looking for, for a while,” said Neely. “And hopefully we can do something to grab someone that’s going to help maybe play 20 minutes a game for us.”
That’s the kind of investment that Bruce Cassidy is certainly on board with management addressing, too.
“Are we lacking a second-pair guy back there with Carlo that’s an established guy in the league? I think that would help us, at the end of the day, and I think we all realize that, so that’s something we’ll discuss moving forward,” Cassidy said at his year-end press conference. “Maybe one of those young guys will grow into that. Like I said, it’s an incomplete judgement on them, because they were injured and didn’t get that playoff experience.”
“In a perfect world, every coach is going to ask for the best players they can possibly have,” said Sweeney. “It’d be like Christmas every day, if we could find a new present under the tree, we’d be happy to unwrap it.”
It’s worth noting that the B’s left side is relatively set for 2021, too. At least from a contractual standpoint. Grzelcyk remains the left’s most expensive talent, at just under $3.7 million. Moore is entering the fourth year of a five-year, $13.75 million contract that really hasn’t paid off for the Bruins. Lauzon, Vaakanainen, and Zboril are all under contract for less than $900,000 each.
That gives the Bruins a lot of room to maneuver about, be it in the trade or free agent market, this summer.
“If we can draft it and develop it like we did with [Charlie] McAvoy and Carlo and hopefully to continue to do it with Lauzon and Zboril and Vaakanainen and guys that are able to continue to progress, that’s a perfect scenario,” Sweeney said. “If not, you have to go out and acquire it or supplement it through free agency, and that’s my job. We fall back on the decision makers that have to find better players and obviously we have to execute better, to the level we’re capable of.”
The Bruins, mind you, are projected to enter the 2021 offseason with almost $27 million in available cap space.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.