By: Patrick Donnelly | Follow me on Twitter @PatDonn12
With the Boston Bruins’ President’s Trophy-winning 2019-20 season now over, general manager Don Sweeney and the rest of the Boston brass head into the offseason with several question marks looming over the roster. How will management address the lack of depth scoring (again)? What will happen with the team’s restricted free agents? Or perhaps the most pressing question that snuck up on the Bruins: what will the left side of defense look like next season?
Admittedly, I did not have the foresight to take a look at the Bruins’ situation down the left side on the backend until recently. Prior to the pandemic, I had thought there would be no way that Boston would let Torey Krug walk or that Zdeno Chara would be without a contract heading into next season. Yet here we are — all signs point to Krug leaving to sign a big ticket elsewhere, and although Chara wants to return, he is still on the brink of unrestricted free agency.
In the most likely scenario, in my opinion, Krug walks and Chara re-signs at a reasonable cap hit and short term. If that is the case, Boston is still left with a gaping hole in the team’s top four at even-strength.
For context with some incoming advanced stats, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Corsi basically measures how much a player’s team controls the puck when they are on the ice, and anything below 45% is generally considered to be below average, while anything above 55% is typically seen as elite.
Chara still has value in a limited role. Sure, his even-strength numbers have dipped in recent season – the 43-year-old sported a Corsi-for (CF%) of 46.7% at even-strength during the regular season (down from 53.8% during the 2018-19 season), and a CF% of 36.8% during the playoffs this season (down from 40.4% during last year’s postseason). However, the big man can still provide value on the penalty kill – he was and still is Boston’s biggest workhorse on the kill – in a limited even-strength role, and in the room, of course.
What does this limited role for Chara look like? Presumably, it would be on the third pair next to a guy like Connor Clifton or Jeremy Lauzon. That leaves spots up for the taking on the second pair to Brandon Carlo’s left and on the top pair next to Charlie McAvoy.
Matt Grzelcyk seems like the clubhouse favorite to slot in next to McAvoy up top as of right now; the pair excelled in two years together at Boston University and have looked good together in a small sample size in the NHL. When together, the two boasted an insane CF% of 59.06% at five-on-five play, during this year’s playoffs, and a CF% of 59.69% at even-strength over the last three regular seasons. In short, when together McAvoy and Grzelcyk are possession monsters for the Bruins, and with more high-end minutes with guys like Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, analytics darlings in their own rights, on the ice with them they should only flourish even more.
This all leaves Carlo without a defense partner on the second pair. While the Bruins have in-house options that might step up in Urho Vaakanainen, Lauzon, or Jakub Zboril, it remains to be seen if those guys would be ready to leap into such a key role. Lauzon proved that he is NHL-ready this season as he assumed a role on the bottom pair next to Grzelcyk during the second half of the season, and excelled for the most part, especially with his physicality, mobility and intensity.
Meanwhile, Zboril has slowly, but steadily, progressed in Providence over the last few seasons. P-Bruins head coach Jay Leach mentioned that the 23-year-old was “probably” the team’s best defenseman by the end of the year, and was one of the last cuts from Boston’s training camp before the season after having an excellent showing. He’s got some sandpaper to his game and can move the puck well; however, consistency is an issue, aside from whether or not he can make the jump. Another snag is that the left-shot d-man has been loaned to HC Kometa Brno in his native Czech Republic as a timeline for next season in both the AHL and NHL is unclear.
Looking at Vaakanainen, there is no question about the promise in his game, from the skating ability to the intelligence. In a very small sample size in the NHL, he did not look out of place. Again, the only concern with Vaakanainen, and Zboril, is whether or not a full-time leap to the NHL is in the cards this season. For Lauzon, the question is if he can shoulder the extra responsibility and tougher defensive matchups.
The Bruins may even be able to look to external options via free agency depending on how much cash is leftover from the re-signing period, whenever that happens. After a quick visit to CapFriendly to look at defensemen set to hit the UFA market, options like T.J. Brodie, Joel Edmundson, Erik Gustaffson, and Brenden Dillon stand out.
Who knows, maybe if, or when, training camp rolls around, one of the young defensemen is poised to seize the apparently open roster spot, impresses, and makes the team out of camp. Or perhaps the Bruins land a free agent that can plug the hole. Until then, all we can do is speculate about how the left side, especially on the second pair, will be addressed.