By Michael DiGiorgio | Follow Me On Twitter: @BostonDiGiorgio
Over the holidays, I created a poll on Twitter to understand what position the Bruins’ biggest weakness was, according to the fans. The poll received 255 votes and I am still stunned by the results.
Bruins fans came to a split decision between their defense’s left-side and a top-six forward as their weakest link. The split decision makes me wonder if the Bruins’ offensive woes drove 48.6% of the voters to this decision. It’s perfectly justified, and it can be argued it’s still a major hole, but is it their biggest heading into the year?
Brad Marchand was originally slated to miss some time, but he’s shed the red non-contact jersey at practice and seems to be on track for opening night on January 14. His linemate David Pastrnak won’t return until February, creating an opening on the first line.
The Bruins have numerous in-house options for their top-six forward hole. Bruins fan would argue that the current options haven’t solidified their roster spot due to inconsistent play. But those players are still growing or are still trying to create chemistry with new linemates. Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk, Ondrej Kase, and newly signed Craig Smith can compete for this open position. Even Jack Studnicka, who has not played more than two NHL games, is vying for a spot.
Anders Bjork has been a serviceable utility man for the Bruins over the last three years. He’s played on all four lines and set a career-high in points last year with 19. He has familiarity with Bergeron, as he spent time on the first line and listens when the new Captain speaks.
Jake DeBrusk recently re-signed for another two years and has been on David Krejci’s side since he dawned the black and gold jersey in 2017. He’s looking to surpass the 30-goal tally, which he nearly accomplished in 2018, and make his new deal worth the Bruins’ investment.
Ondrej Kase was traded from Anaheim to Boston at least year’s deadline. He’s endured concussions and a torn labrum in his shoulder since joining Boston. He had only played six games with the Bruins before his injury and never seemed to right the ship in the playoffs. He is slated to play on Krejci’s right side once the puck is dropped in January. A full off-season and training camp should help Kase get his legs under him and hopefully surpasses his career-high 38 total points.
Craig Smith was Boston’s big (and really only) ticket signing this past off-season. Smith has been in the league for nine years, all with Nashville. He has 330 points in 661 games and has scored 20 or more goals in five of the last seven seasons. Smith is a beast at even-strength play, which will help the Bruins immensely.
Currently, Smith is practicing on Charlie Coyle’s right side. Head Coach Bruce Cassidy is notorious for switching his lines, so we likely see Smith up with Bergeron and Marchand while Pastrnak is out. For now, Jack Studnicka is listed on Bergeron’s right. Studnicka was selected 53rd overall in 2017 and notched his first career NHL assist in two games last year. He has a promising future and is seen as one of the Bruins’ most likely to succeed.
The Bruins have plenty of options to secure that top-six role hole. General Manager Don Sweeney may still look to the trade deadline and free agency pool for new options, but he has some time to evaluate. On defense, however, the Bruins are razor thin on the left side and might be looking to a trade or free agent much sooner.
This poll was created before Zdeno Chara’s departure, and even then, the Bruins’ left side defensive core was slim pickings. Matt Grzelcyk is a lock in the top-four. After Grzelcyk, John Moore is the Bruins’ most seasoned veteran on the team after him. Moore played in 24 games last season and was rarely seen in the playoffs. The John Moore experiment has not worked out in Sweeney’s favor, and there have even been rumors about trading him for further cap relief.
The Bruins invited their entire left-handed defensive group to this month’s training camp.
It is normal for teams to invite most of their AHL roster to camp to see how much work (or lack thereof) their prospects have put in over the off-season. According to Cap Friendly, the Bruins left side defense after Grzelcyk and John Moore consists of Jack Ahcan, Urho Vaakanainen, Nick Wolff, and Jakub Zboril. Jeremy Lauzon is listed as a right-shot defenseman on Cap Friendly’s site but shoots lefty.
Lauzon is likely to play on the left side, given the scarcity at the position. Let’s throw him on the left-side argument. The only three defensemen of that group who’s played more than one NHL game are Lauzon, Vaakanainen, and Zboril. Lauzon has played a total of 35 games, Vaakanainen at 7, and Zboril at 2. So I’ll ask the poll in a different way, are we sure that the left side defense isn’t the Bruins’ weakest link?
Unless Wolff and Ahcan blow Sweeney’s doors off at training camp, the two will play with Boston’s affiliate teams this coming year. Sweeney did not retain Chara’s services in order to give his farm system players more NHL playing time.
Sweeney’s risky move is to hand the keys to three players who have not played for more than 50 games combined. It’s understood these players can only grow and learn given these opportunities, but the Bruins don’t have a true veteran who can guide them through an NHL season (Chara).
There’s an old saying among NHL teams and scouts that teams do not know what they have in a defensemen until they’ve played 250 NHL games. With that in mind, we may not know what these players can bring for several years.
Jeremy Lauzon has been practicing with Charlie McAvoy on the first pair at training camp. Lauzon spent most of his 35 games on the third pairing with Connor Clifton. Lauzon was drafted 52nd overall in 2015 and has averaged 15:29 minutes on ice with the Bruins over two years. McAvoy is searching for a new defensive partner with Chara’s departure, and placing Grzelcyk with Charlie could make the first pairing too top-heavy.
Lauzon was a bright spot on the Bruins last season after being recalled in March. His 6’1, 204-pound frame allows him to use his immense reach and big size to move bodies away from Tuukka Rask. He is picking up where he left off in training camp.
The big question for Lauzon is, can he elevate his game to a top-pairing player and average over 20 minutes per game? McAvoy has averaged 22:39 minutes over his short three-year career. Chara was averaging 21:53 minutes over that same three-year span. Lauzon will be expected to emulate those same minutes and expected to shut down the opposition’s first units. Is he ready for that, and if he’s not, who takes over?
This is the largest difference between the left-side defense and the top-six forward group. The Bruins don’t have numerous replacements on the left side of their defense if a player is not ready, or worse, is injured. There are too many unanswered questions for Boston’s defense. Matt Grzelcyk would likely take Lauzon’s spot on the top pairing, but who takes his role with Brandon Carlo?
Urho Vaakanainen was the Bruins’ first-round draft selection in 2017. He’s spent most of his playing career in Finland and last year with the Providence Bruins. The 6’1, 185-pound defenseman has grown much slower than the Bruins may have anticipated. Jay Leach, Head Coach of the Providence Bruins, has sung Urho’s praises but has kept them in check.
Jakub Zboril, on the other hand, has been praised quite regularly in Providence.
Zboril was one of the three drafts picks the Bruins had in the first-round of 2015. The 6’0, 200-pound defenseman has mostly been paired alongside Connor Clifton in training camp when Urho is subbed out. Zboril has been in Providence the past two years, tallying 35 points in 111 games. Jay Leach has been more willing to give Zboril a longer leash to develop his game because he’s been doing what’s been asked of him. This speaks volumes about his trajectory and where his ceiling is, but how long will it take him to achieve it, and how many minutes per game can he give you?
With Chara’s departure, the Bruins are relying heavily on three relatively unknown defensemen. It’s understood that these players can’t evolve and make mistakes unless given the opportunity, but these players make up almost half of the Bruins defense. It has been rumored by Elliotte Friedman (Sportsnet) that the Bruins have shown interest in a left-shot defenseman, Ben Hutton.
If Sweeney decides to sign Hutton, it likely means one or two of the aforementioned young defensemen are not ready for the top two defensemen pairings. If Sweeney passes, maybe he is a bit more confident in Lauzon, Zboril, and Vaakanainen.
Time will certainly tell if these players are ready for the challenge, but the hole remains. The Bruins won’t truly know what they have in each of the three defensemen until they’ve played at least one full NHL season. The Bruins know a lot more about their forward group than their defensive pairings, which is why it’s their biggest weakness, by far.