By Michael DiGiorgio | Follow Me On Twitter: @BostonDiGiorgio
A few nights ago, the NHL world received the news they’d all been hoping for.
Although not official, the NHL seems to be heading towards a new season beginning January 13. Players who are out on loans to various countries across Europe have been told to come home, showing the NHL is close to an agreement with the NHL Players Association.
If all of this reporting comes to fruition, the Bruins roster, especially their defensive core, may look a bit differently next year. Zdeno Chara has yet to announce his plans for the upcoming season. It seems Chara is taking his time, which leads us to believe he wants to see what the NHL and NHLPA agree on before he agrees to come back. A few defensive prospects are looking to solidify a spot on the back end, which seems to hinge on Chara’s decision, and all are looking to improve.
The Bruin defenseman who will (and honestly, has to) most improve this season will be Matt Grzelcyk. Grzelcyk is a former third-round draft pick in 2012 out of Boston University. If you happen to listen to any NESN broadcast, it’s not lost that Matt is from Boston, and his dad works for the TD Garden crew responsible for switching between the Celtics’ court and the Bruins’ rink. The 26-year old didn’t crack the Bruins roster until the 2017-2018 season.
Matt appeared in 125 games in his four years at BU, totaling 95 points. He moved on to the Providence Bruins for one and a half seasons before reaching the NHL and has not looked back. He’s entering his fourth season in the NHL and has been catapulted into a new role with the departure of Torey Krug. Krug signed a 7-year, $45.5M deal with the St. Louis Blues this past off-season. Krug was the Bruins power-play specialist and Brandon Carlo’s defensive partner all season.
With Krug’s departure and Chara’s undecided future, Grzelcyk finds himself in a position for a new defensive partner and a spot on the first power-play unit. If Chara returns to the team, he will likely start the year with McAvoy. As the season goes on, the Head Coach, Bruce Cassidy, may decrease the big man’s minutes and save him for the playoffs.
Let’s say Chara does not return, and Charlie McAvoy is looking for a new left-handed partner. Grzelcyk is the first in line for Chara’s replacement. The only other current left-handed defenseman on the Bruins roster is John Moore, and it’s safe to assume he will not be given first-line duties. Urho Vaakanainen is out on loan to Finland, and Jakub Zboril only has two NHL games under his belt. By default (barring any trades), Grzelcyk is the next in line.
According to Natural Stat Trick’s time on ice per games played tool, McAvoy and Grzelcyk spent 3:04 of 5v5 time on ice per game with one another last season. To put that into perspective, Chara and McAvoy spent 12:25 minutes together on the ice in 5v5 situations. He hasn’t spent a ton of time with McAvoy comparatively; however, he has the most familiarity with Charlie’s play style. Grzelcyk actually spent an even amount of time with all of the other Bruin defensemen throughout last year, which shows Cassidy’s trust in him and shows Matt can play with almost any style.
Grzelcyk’s strengths generally fly under the radar to the average fan. Those who carefully watch the Bruins and write for the team have highlighted Grzelcyk’s excellent defensive zone ability.
He also has incredible vision and is one of the best at controlled zone entry. Grzelcyk’s ability to create scoring opportunities beginning in the defensive zone is not talked about nearly enough.
His playmaking abilities create scoring opportunities for the forwards, and he’s rarely rewarded publicly. Grzelcyk rarely gives the puck away, especially in the defensive zone. According to Natural Stat Trick, with over 150 minutes played dating back to 2017, Grzelcyk has the least amount of giveaways on the team amongst defensemen with 88. The next lowest person is Brandon Carlo, with 104. The puck sticks to Matt’s stick like a magnet, and he’s able to create scoring plays from the defensive zone almost every time he’s on the ice.
Regardless of Chara’s future, the Krug departure creates a massive hole on the power-play. Krug logged 235:46 minutes on the power-play last year, which was 128:24 minutes more than the next player. Krug was the team’s power-play quarterback and will be missed in that aspect of the game. Grzelcyk and McAvoy headed up the second power-play line, which gives both players familiarity if they’re given power-play one duties.
Krug’s strengths on the power-play were to create openings and cycle the puck to his forwards. Last season on the man advantage, Krug had 26 power-play assists, accounting for 65% of his total assists and a 4.55 shooting percentage. Grzelcyk had six assists, which accounts for 35% of his total assists and a 6.67 shooting percentage. He’s not shy to shoot the puck, nor is he selfish, which creates scoring opportunities for his teammates.
It’s more likely that Cassidy tries out McAvoy on the first power-play unit before Grzelcyk, but if given the opportunity, Grzelcyk should settle in nicely. He’s been compared to Krug several times in the past few years, not just because of their heights. They play similar games, though Krug has been more offensively gifted over their years on the Bruins. Grzelcyk posted a career-high 21 points last season and will be allowed to surpass that with these new opportunities.
Grzelcyk is in the best position amongst the defensemen to improve this season, and based on his past, will show Bruins fans why he’s ready for the next step. As an honorable mention, if Grzelcyk were not in the position he’s in now, Connor Clifton would be the most likely candidate to improve the most next season.