Heading into this season, it appeared the Bruins defense would be a weak spot for Boston. Not only were they moving on from their top 2 left-shot defensemen, but this unit was also full of question marks. However, up to this point, the young skaters on the backend have shown that they were ready for this moment.
Young guns replacing key cogs
This off-season, the Bruins said good-bye to Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara.
Krug was an offensive dynamo during 7 plus years in Black and Gold. Since his first full season as an NHL defenseman in 2014, Krug has amassed 345 points, good for 8th among blue-liners during that span. He was a phenomenal power-play quarterback over his tenure.
It was going to be difficult for the Bruins to replace his productive 20 minutes of ice time per game when he signed with St. Louis. On top of losing Krug, the Bruins longtime captain was also on the way out.
Chara completely changed the Bruins when he signed in Boston for the 2007 season. Over his 14 years as captain, Chara represented the organization as well as humanly possible.
He was one of the most feared and effective shutdown defensemen in the league. Always drawing the opponent’s top players and challenging minutes, he rose to the occasion time and time again. Bruins fans will never forget his contribution in bringing The Stanley Cup back to Boston in 2011.
Replacing Chara’s grueling 20 minutes a night was going to be challenging. But replacing his leadership and work ethic inside the locker room was impossible.
Young, unproven, but talented
Of the six main defensemen the Bruins started the season with, only 1, Kevan Miller, was over 30. And Miller had his problems, as he had missed the entire 2020 season battling a knee injury.
It was unknown if the two young skaters, Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril, were even NHL-caliber defensemen. Lauzon had only skated in 35 games with the Bruins, while Zboril had just 2 games in at this level.
On top of those question marks, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, and Matt Grzelcyk were all going to have a significant increase in ice time and responsibilities.
So far this season, the unit has exceeded expectations.
Taking advantage of opportunity
McAvoy is playing the best hockey of his career. No longer deferring to Chara, he is running Boston’s blue-line. He willingly throws his body around when appropriate, shows off his skating skills consistently and makes great decisions with the puck.
McAvoy is also flourishing offensively, racking up 12 points in 15 games, including an impressive stretch of eight straight games with a point. He is legitimately in the conversation for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman.
Carlo and Miller are very good when it comes to stymying opponent scoring chances. Both also seem to be more confident in their skating, as well.
Lauzon and Zboril have come along well. While both are still learning what it takes to play each game at this level, it is clear they both belong in the league. Lauzon has a good combination of skating ability mixed with just the right amount of nastiness. Zboril is gaining confidence and looks comfortable after every shift.
The one downside to this unit so far has been Grzelcyk’s inability to stay on the ice. Stepping up from his bottom-pairing role last year, he was going to be more of a target for opponents. So far, Grzelcyk has played just six games total and only one in February. While this is not a major concern at the moment, it will be worth noting how Grzelcyk’s body holds up playing tougher minutes.
So far, so good
To this point, the Bruins have done a fantastic job replacing the 40 minutes of ice time per game Chara and Krug left behind. The defensemen who have been a part of Bruce Cassidy’s system are doing well, for the most part.
We will learn even more about these players as the season goes along, especially once the playoffs get underway. The true test will come during those series; when these players do battle against supreme offensive talent. It will be fascinating to see how this young unit fairs in the spring.
Story by Chad Jones
Follow Chad on Twitter @shutupchadjones
Image courtesy of Boston Herald