Bruins Early Defensive Struggles

( Photo Credit: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images )

By: Ryan Duffy | Follow Me On Twitter @Rduffy26

Following a 5-3 loss against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday night, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy mentioned to the media that the self-inflicted defensive errors ultimately cost them the game. The Bruins’ defense through the first eleven games in the 2021-22 season has been everything but steady which is largely uncharacteristic of them. In previous years, the Bruins were known league-wide as a solid defensive team, but this year has been a disaster thus far.

A significant deficiency in the Bruins’ defensive zone has been their coverage in front of the goal. The Bruins’ defense in some of their most recent matchups has failed to clear out the front of their net. As shown below in the heat map from Natural Stat Trick, in the loses against the Oilers, Maple Leafs, and Hurricanes, Boston’s defense has allowed their opposition to get inside position on the doorstep. The lack of coverage has allowed high-quality scoring chances for their opponent (shown in red and blue), and plenty of them have ended up in the back of the net.

Not only has Boston struggled at 5-on-5 in their zone, but also on the penalty kill. Dating back to the 2016-17 season, the Bruins have finished as a top-three team in penalty killing percentage four out of five seasons. The Bruins penalty kill is ranked 18th in the league, with 81.1% of penalties killed off. While their penalty kill percentage is in the lower end of the NHL, they are 11th in average penalties taken per 60 minutes with 3.97 penalties.

Bruce Cassidy has elected to start Brandon Carlo and Derek Forbort as the defensive pairing on the first penalty kill unit to start the season. So far, the combination has looked shaky considering five of the seven powerplay goals Boston has allowed have been with Carlo and Forbort on the ice.

The Carlo and Forbort unit particularly struggled on the penalty kill against the high-flying offense of the Toronto Maple Leafs last Saturday. On both of Auston Mathews’s goals, errors were made by Forbort on Matthews’s first goal and then Carlo on his second.

Forbort on Matthews’s first goal was battling with Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner for the puck, but he had one hand on the stick and basically hands the puck to him. The puck finds its way to Matthews, who puts home his own rebound.

“The entry was just soft in the middle of the ice. I mean, one hand on the stick?” Cassidy commented on Forbort’s play on Matthews’s goal. “You just can’t do that. You gotta be hard in those areas. A lot of talent on the other side… you can’t clear pucks with one hand on your stick.”

Then on Matthews’s second goal, Carlo fails to clear the zone despite winning a battle out of the left corner. This led to Morgan Reilly feeding Matthews a puck right in his wheelhouse for a one-timer that ends up in the back of the net. 

“I think that’s a bad clear. In the corner, we win a battle, we don’t get it out. That’s a bad clear,” said Cassidy.

Overall, the Bruins need to improve their structure in their own zone, and certain players need to step their game up. Specifically, the left side for Boston have shown their weaknesses and need to improve their game.

Mike Reilly has a goal and two assists for Boston and has shown he can be a mobile defenseman with a solid transition game. While there have been times where Reilly has looked sharp, he’s also had games where he’s looked lost in both the neutral and defensive zone. Reilly currently is second on the Bruins d-core with five giveaways, including four in Boston’s defensive area.

Matt Grzelcyk is another player on Boston who’s been quiet in the scoring department. Although he’s shown signs of brilliance with his passing and puck possession, he had no points in his first ten games for the Bruins. He did record two assists against the Oilers but was also a minus-two in the game.

Bruins’ management will likely be patient before pressing the panic button. Still, many Bruins fans (including myself) don’t think that Boston’s management can solve the defensive problems internally. The Bruins will eventually have to shop elsewhere to improve the defensive pairings. My colleague, Kevin O’Keefe, will discuss this matter in an upcoming article on who the Bruins should target and to trade for this season.

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