By: Patrick Donnelly | Follow me on Twitter @PatDonn12
As the Boston Bruins head into the murky waters of the offseason in a year that is surely to prove more convoluted than others, general manager Don Sweeney, head coach Bruce Cassidy and co. undoubtedly have some tough decisions ahead of them. One roster decision that seems like a no-brainer heading into training camp, whenever that happens, is that Matt Grzelcyk should get first crack at the playing to Charlie McAvoy’s left on the top defensive pair.
Torey Krug is all but officially signed to a big ticket elsewhere in the National Hockey League, based off of everything that has been said in his and Sweeney’s season-ending press conferences. Zdeno Chara clearly wants to remain in Boston; however, he is without a deal on the brink of unrestricted free agency, and who knows what his role will look like if he is back in the Black and Gold next season. Presumably, the Big Man would take on a smaller role at even-strength. This all leaves an open spot next to McAvoy.
Granted, Grzelcyk’s status as a restricted free agent may prove to be a snag, but there is no doubt in this writer’s mind that the Bruins will lock up the 26-year-old. From terrific underlying numbers with McAvoy at even-strength to comparable offensive success to Torey Krug, Grzelcyk is primed to take on a bigger role with this team.
Beyond the obvious connection between the 5-foot-9, 174-pound defenseman and McAvoy from their success in two years together on Boston University’s top pair, the two’s productioin has translated in spades at the NHL level. When together on the ice, the opposition barely touches the puck as the former Terriers boasted a ridiculous Corsi-for (CF%) of 59.06% at five-on-five play, during this year’s playoffs.
In 455:54 of ice-time together over the last three regular seasons, the Grzelcyk-McAvoy pairing has a strong CF% of 59.69% at even-strength. The pair has proven to be possession masterclass similar to a combo like Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Compare the above stats with the numbers for the Chara-McAvoy pairing over the last few regular seasons (see the below tweet), and there is an obvious improvement. With elevated minutes in general and more time on the ice with the top line, this potential top pair should only continue to excel.
From the 2017-18 season up to the COVID-19 pause this year, Grzelcyk and McAvoy held a high-danger chances rate of 110 for to 69 against (61.45%), and a high-danger goals ratio of 18-5 (78.26%). Comparatively, Chara and McAvoy’s high-danger chances for versus against sat at a rate of 387-355 (52.16%), while their high-danger goals for/against was 57-46 (55.34%)
Individually, Grzelcyk seems to have earned more trust from Cassidy in comparison to Krug. During the 2019-20 regular season, 48.85% of No. 48’s five-on-five shifts started in the offensive zone, compared to 74.33% for Krug as Cassidy does not appear to be as quick to shelter Grzelcyk as he is with No. 47. Further to that point, when Grzelcyk was on the ice this season, Bruins goaltenders had a save percentage of .942, whereas Krug’s on-ice save percentage was .913.
Also, it is not like the Bruins are sacrificing offensive production from the backend for defense. As far as on-ice shooting percentages at even-strength go, the two d-men are fairly similar in terms of the Bruins’ production. Last season Boston shot at a 6.64% clip with Grzelcyk on the ice, while the team had a 8.14% success rate with Krug.
Grzelcyk in his own right is a perfectly capable power play quarterback. That’s not to say he’s better than Krug – you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the league that can run a power play the way Krug can – but, in what is a very small audition, Grzelcyk has shown that he can get the job done.
Thanks to the below tweet from @Bruins_Stats, we see that the Bruins’ have produced at a better rate with Grzelcyk dishing the puck to David Patrnak compared to with Krug (12.3 goals-for per 60 minutes with No. 48, and 10.3 GF/60 with No. 47). That’s not to say that level of success is maintainable, as with 72.9 minutes of time on-ice with Grzelcyk and 355.8 TOI with Krug as the power play QB. It would be reasonable to assume the success rate with Grzelcyk would level off, yet not drop too drastically.
Although the former Terrier captain’s size can be a concern when it comes to battles in the corners and some bigger defensive matchups, as we saw at points during the the playoffs this year, the positives outweigh the negatives. The left-shot defender can make a phenomenal first pass to kickstart the breakout, and bring it in all three zones. Whether it is based off individual merit, or his track record with McAvoy, Grzelcyk deserves to be the favorite to slide up to the top pair, and take on greater responsibility at both even-strength and the power play.