It didn’t take long for Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy to figure out where trade deadline addition Hampus Lindholm will start his Bruins career.
Slated to make his Bruins debut Thursday night against the Lightning, the 28-year-old Lindholm will get the call opposite Charlie McAvoy on Boston’ top pairing, while Matt Grzelcyk will skate with Brandon Carlo below them as the team’s middle pairing. But what does that mean for the rest of the Black and Gold’s defense — namely Connor Clifton, Derek Forbort, and Mike Reilly, as well as Josh Brown when he arrives to the Bruins sometime Thursday — and the team’s third pairing?
Well, some unhappiness, for one.
“Listen, someone’s going to be unhappy [Thursday] because I think they’re all doing a good job,” Cassidy said. “But it’s a good problem to have.”
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As it stands right now, the Bruins have two spots for three players with Clifton, Forbort, and Reilly. (The 6-foot-5 Brown, who was in the midst of a career year for Ottawa prior to his trade, could eventually enter the discussion, but he would appear to be the team’s No. 8 defenseman out of the gate a la Jarred Tinordi last season.)
Wednesday’s practice featured Forbort on the left side of the team’s third pairing, while Reilly and Clifton rotated on the right. It could be a sign of what’s to come, with the left-shot Reilly moving to his off side. It’s something that Reilly has done in the past, sure, but a move that will comes with its challenges, as explained by Cassidy.
“Pucks coming around the wall in the O-zone, you gotta take on your backhand [and] pull it to your forehand, usually. That takes some time. The benefit of that is one that comes across ice, you got a one-timer possibility you could play on your forehand, so that works both ways,” Cassidy said of the challenge moving from left to right for Reilly. “Pivoting, I think if you’re used to pivoting [and] closing plays playing the left side, it’s a little bit easier with your stick position. Sometimes it can be easier on your off side because you’re leading with your stick, it’s not coming across your body. There’s all those little nuances.”
It’s also Reilly’s best ticket to the Boston lineup if Forbort remains in as a constant, which sounds like the plan as of right now.
“He’s going to have to get some reps [on the right side],” Cassidy said of Reilly, who had been playing with McAvoy on Boston’s top pair prior to the Lindholm trade. “I’ve got three guys [and] we gotta make a determination on the bottom pair. And if it’s Forbort and Reilly, then Reilly has to play the right side. So he needs to get reps there whether he’s in or out [Thursday]. We gotta make that call. That’s why he was over there [Wednesday].”
This not a pairing that the Bruins have used much at all in 2021-22, with Forbort and Reilly together for just 25:15 of five-on-five action, according to NaturalStatTrick. That makes that duo the 15th-most common pairing for the Bruins this season.
The Bruins wouldn’t be asking the 28-year-old Reilly, who has totaled four goals and 14 points through 57 games this year, to completely reinvent his game should he get the call next to Forbort.
“Mike [is a] puck mover. That shouldn’t change either,” Cassidy said. “He’s done a good job moving his feet, trying to play a little more north., little more engaged in battles. He did a lot of things we asked, and is working on the things we’ve asked him to do when playing with Charlie. It’s just now that’s gonna be Lindholm’s spot.”
And if it’s not Reilly, the right-shot Clifton will be Forbort’s partner.
That’s a pairing that the Bruins have leaned on plenty this season. In fact, their 384 minutes and change of five-on-five play together this season makes them the second-most used defensive pairing for the Bruins this season, behind the Grzelyk-Carlo pairing’s 430 minutes together. The Clifton-Forbort pairing has managed to remain above water at five-on-five, too, with the duo on the ice for 18 goals for and 17 against despite having the second-lowest offensive-zone start percentage among any B’s pairing with at least 100 minutes together in 2021-22.
The 5-foot-11 Clifton has done a tremendous job earning his minutes since the since-traded Urho Vaakanainen went down in February, with a defense-leading 46 hits and 11 takeaways since Feb. 8. Clifton also came through with a helper and the game-tying goal in Boston’s 3-2 overtime win over the Canadiens on Monday. There’s little reason to take him out of the lineup.
Forbort’s status as an apparent lineup lock, meanwhile, makes sense given his penalty-killing contributions.
Nobody on the Bruins averages more shorthanded time on ice than Forbort, at 3:07 per night. Forbort is actually one of just eight NHL defensemen to appear in at least 50 games and average at least three minutes of shorthanded time on ice per game this season. Among that group of eight, only the Hurricanes’ Jaccob Slavin has posted stronger numbers than Forbort when it comes to shots against and expected goals against per 60, while Forbort ranks third in goals against per 60 and high-danger chances against per 60. He’s an undeniably key piece of a Boston penalty kill that enters Thursday’s slate with the ninth-best success rate in the league, at 81.9 percent on the year, and sixth-best (82.5 percent) since the start of 2022.
The Bruins are happy with Forbort beyond the shorthanded contributions, with Cassidy feeling that Forbort has finally found his footing in the Bruins’ zone defense after playing more of a man-to-man style in Winnipeg.
This is, again, a problem the Bruins have waited all year to have.
“One of them is gonna be unhappy [Thursday], but the message is, ‘Hey, we’re all in it together and when it’s your turn, be ready to go if you’re the odd-man out [and] keep the body language out of the room,’” Cassidy offered. “It’s a really good problem to have. Everybody just has to play to their strengths.”
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. He has been covering the Bruins since 2010, and has been a member of the Boston chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association since 2013. 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.