By: Max Mainville | Check me out on Twitter @tkdmaxbjj
The National Hockey League has passed over the American Thanksgiving – a common milestone date for tracking the progress of teams and players alike. Twenty-four games into the 2018-19 season, some major storylines have been present across the league, but even more so with the Boston Bruins. The dominance of the first-line, the struggling depth scoring, the goalie “controversy” and of course, the injuries.
Flashing back to the offseason, the Bruins seemed to have more than enough defencemen to role throughout the season with some spares for the inevitable injuries. Unfortunately, that was not even close to being the case. Below are every single blueliner that has been injured at some point this year.
- Torey Krug – September 29th – ankle injury – missed 11 games
- Kevan Miller – October 18th – hand injury – missed 13 games
- Charlie McAvoy – October 20th – concussion – unlikely he returns on road trip
- Urho Vaakanainen – October 23rd – concussion – unlikely he returns on road trip
- Matt Grzelcyk – October 27th – lower-body – missed 2 games
- Brandon Carlo – November 11th – upper-body – unlikely he returns on road trip
- Zdeno Chara – November 15th – knee – expected to miss four-to-six weeks
- John Moore – November 16th – lower-body – missed 3 games
At one point, Jakub Zboril, Connor Clifton, and Jeremy Lauzon were all on Boston’s roster making it look like the Providence Bruins were all of a sudden in the NHL. All gentle humour aside, the Bruins have been rocked with injuries to key defencemen and we are only less than two whole months into the year.
One of the members of the “original” defensive core, the one who missed the least amount of games, Massachusetts’ own – Matt Grzelcyk, has been one of the few positives that the injury bug has provided us.
Surprisingly, Grzelcyk was one of the question marks within Boston’s lineup before the first puck drop of the season. With the offseason addition of John Moore, trade rumours were already being brainstormed for a possible top-six winger to add to the goal scoring threats that the team seemed to be lacking since the departure of Rick Nash. Quite often, however, those hypothetical deals included either Krug or Grzelcyk.
As the season progressed and the injuries continued to pile up way higher than expected or hoped, those trade ideas rapidly vanished from the fanbase’s mindset – and for good reason. For a moment in time, the injury bug appeared to be an actual contagious virus that every and any player on the team can contract. Trading a player on a position that is using players from your AHL affiliate on your top-four defensive pairing does not make a ton of sense.
Matt Grzelcyk has been handed the task of manning the top pairing ever since Chara has been out of the lineup. In every game between November 14th and November 23rd (five games), Grzelcyk played over twenty minutes of ice time – hitting the 25-minute mark against the Stars on the sixteenth of November.
Of course, when watching the Boston Bruins on television or listening live on the radio, you most commonly hear Matt Grzelcyk’s name or see his #48 on the back of his sweater on an offensive play, such as a breakout pass or a power-play set-up and that is most definitely one of Grzelcyk’s strong suits.
As a defenseman, Grzelcyk is able to handle the puck with a great deal of fluidity around the area of the net. He is able to use good skating to weave his way around defenders – always looking for that first pass to start a rush. Many writers and analysts throughout the industry have associated that element of Matt’s game to Torey Krug, his fellow teammate.
Krug, as most of us already know, can do that exact same thing with ease. Both defenders clock in at around five-foot-nine forcing them to be quick with their skates and their stick or else one of the big-bodied forwards will level into them. Grzelcyk recently reiterated what I just said in an article on the Boston Herald by Marisa Ingemi
“It’s about getting back into skating with the puck and using my hockey IQ to shove players off in the D-zone and create offence in the neutral zone moving my feet,”
That aspect alone is commonly undervalued in Grzelcyk’s game – solely because the Bruins have Krug, who have we said is very similar in that way. However, for Krug, there is one consistent negative it seems like, his defence. At first, it may seem strange to have a defenseman that is not terrific at playing, well, defence. But in a day and age where speed and skill overtakes size and strength, the defensive side of a player may not stand out as much as it should.
For Grzelcyk, he is able to make solid defensive plays when needed and he often is able to use that precision skating to either catch up to an opposing player on an odd-man rush or a breakaway or he can use his feet to get back in position or even bail out one of his linemates who may have found themselves out of position.
On Friday, November 23rd against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Boston, Penguins forward Bryan Rust managed to free himself from the Bruins defensemen, (one of which being Grzelcyk), going in all alone on Jaroslav Halak for the breakaway. However, due to Grzelcyk’s speed and skating as mentioned, he was able to strategically hit the stick of Rust and the puck went wide before Rust could even get a shot off of his stick.
In the process, Grzelcyk managed to avoid taking a penalty on the play – which would have most likely been a penalty shot. See the play below (apologies for poor audio as I was forced to screen record the video on my computer from the NHL.com YouTube page.
Original Video (Grzelcyk play at 6:15):
This is not the only time this season that Grzelcyk has done that as well. Sure, he may have allowed Rust to get behind him – creating the chance to occur, but he was able to recover and stop that mistake. That characteristic in an offensive d-man often goes unnoticed. In most situations where a defenceman loses sight of a forward, it’ll lead towards a goal or a good scoring opportunity and the blame falls on the defender.
All that combined, Matt Grzelcyk has the remainder of this season and all of the 2019-2020 season under contract with the Bruins, making $1.4 million annually. His current deal is closest comparable to Erik Gustafsson’s two-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. Rob Hagg of the Philadelphia Flyers is also a 95.7% match with Grzelcyk’s contract – and Hagg only has nine points in 71 games since the signing date while Matt has fifteen in 63 NHL games since the deal.
It could very well be a case as time goes on, that Matt Grzelcyk is trusted more and more, even when the cluster of injured players on the blueline eventually come back to the full-time roster. With the lack of depth scoring on the Bruins so far this season as well, it could be possible that Torey Krug gets traded for that top-six forward.
So, I beg the question to all of you Boston Bruins fanatics, is Matt Grzelcyk underappreciated by the fanbase as a whole or is he just an average NHL defenceman? Let me know via my Twitter poll @tkdmaxbjj.