By: Van Alan | Follow me on Twitter @VanAlanClark
In the wake of the NHL trade deadline, the Boston Bruins find themselves with eight legitimate NHL defensemen. Nine if you believe that Jack Ahcan is ready for the NHL (I do). Only six defensemen can play every night. This leaves two good players watching from the press box every game and another stashed down in Providence.
Now, it’s not quite as complicated as that. The Bruins acquisition of Hampus Lindholm gave them something they haven’t had since the last few years of Zdeno Chara’s prime – four legitimate top-4 defensemen. The quartet of Lindholm, Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, and Brandon Carlo will dress every game and play the bulk of the minutes on the back end. This leaves four players – Mike Reilly, Derek Forbort, Connor Clifton, and newly acquired Josh Brown – battling for the two spots on Boston’s bottom pair.
This is an excellent problem to have, but it is nonetheless something that head coach Bruce Cassidy must figure out.
So, who should play and who should sit? Let’s start by weighing the merits of each player.
In this writer’s opinion of the four players listed above, Reilly is the best player. Forbort is a solid, defense-first, bottom pair defenseman who offers tangible value on the penalty kill. Clifton is probably a 7th D on a contending team. The same could be said of Brown, though he’s a different type of player.
Reilly, meanwhile, is capable of more. He was a top-4 D for much of this year in Boston prior to the Lindholm acquisition. He was last year following his trade to Boston, and he was in Ottawa before that. He played his best hockey before the deadline while getting top-pair minutes with McAvoy.
The guy is a skilled player – he makes a great first pass, has excellent vision, excels at getting his shot through from the point, and is poised with the puck. On the other hand, he is not the stoutest defender on the planet, which is why he always looked like a guy in just a little over his head in a top-4 role. However, considering his talent level, he could likely excel in a bottom pair role.
This might necessitate Reilly playing his offside. However, of the four players in question, he is the best player. That would suggest that he should get the first shot at one of those spots.
Early in the season, when the Bruins were trying to make a Forbort-McAvoy pairing work, Forbort really struggled. Since being re-cast in a more appropriate role for him – the bottom-pair role mostly paired with Clifton – Forbort has been solid. He’s a strong penalty killer and, when he’s on his game, is pretty good at getting his stick in passing lanes and halting plays in the neutral zone and at the blue line. After Reilly, Forbort is pretty clearly the best remaining player.
The issue for Forbort is, like Reilly, he’s left-handed. And unlike literally every other lefthanded defensemen who has dressed for the Boston Bruins this year, Cassidy is entirely unwilling to play Forbort on his offside even though he did it in Winnipeg. It’s hard to understand why but we don’t see practice. There must be something Cassidy sees that makes him uncomfortable with playing Forbort on the right. So, if Forbort is going to be in the lineup, he’s going be their third pair left defensemen.
Clifton is an interesting case. Of the players mentioned, he might have the highest ceiling. This sounds like hyperbole. It isn’t. We have seen multiple playoff games over the past few years – games featuring Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Charlie McAvoy – in which Conor Clifton has been the best player on the ice. Clifton also has the longest history with Cassidy, and he’s formed a reasonably solid pair with Forbort this year.
The issue with Clifton is this – he’s a complete wildcard. He’s genuinely talented. He’s a plus skater, very strong on his skates, and plays with an edge. His problem is playing under control. He is likely to make a big hit at the blue line as he is to take himself out of position going for a hit, whiff, and give up a scoring chance.
Clifton is capable of stringing together several strong games in a row. He did it prior to his -3 showing in the recent 6-4 loss to Toronto. This is what you worry about with Clifton; every time he plays a few good games in a row, you know that the bubble is about to burst, and he’s going to burn you. But again, the highs with Clifton are high. So when considering who to throw in on the Bruins bottom pair, he’s a name that can’t be ignored.
Of the four players in question, Brown is the player the Bruins have the least familiarity with. On the surface, he looks like a solid, big, physical, bottom pair, right-handed defenseman. He’s looked solid paired with Reilly in limited looks thus far. It’s hard to have a fully formed opinion on Brown after only a couple of games. However, if/when Forbort isn’t in the lineup, the Bruins will be thankful to have another guy with the size they can throw in there.
If you subscribe to the “play your best players” philosophy, the bottom pair should be Forbort and Reilly, with Reilly playing his offside. They are the two best players. There’s a reason they are $3M players, and Clifton and Brown are $1M players. The trouble is that every time the Bruins try to play Reilly and Forbort together, it goes terribly, the recent loss to Red Wings being only the latest example. In fact, that pairing has yet to make it through a game without being split up, and they are rapidly approaching non-option status. I think Cassidy will give them a few more looks because they are the two best players, but every game, they seem to look more and more like two guys who just can’t play together.
Two other potential pairings are already non-options; a Forbort-Brown pairing would be too much size and not enough speed, and a Reilly-Clifton pairing would be the inverse.
So if they aren’t going to go with Forbort-Reilly Cassidy’s options of either Forbort-Clifton or Reilly-Brown, Forbort and Clifton have been fairly solid for most of 2022. Reilly-Brown, meanwhile, hasn’t gotten many looks, but again – Reilly is the best player and could excel in a bottom pair role with a stay-at-home partner like Brown.
The Bruins don’t ask for much from their bottom pair. They have four guys in their top two pairings capable of devouring minutes. They’re really only looking for about 12-minutes from their bottom pair, which they hopefully don’t get scored on. That’s something Forbort and Reilly weren’t able to provide Tuesday vs. Detroit. Forbort and Clifton also developed a nasty habit of giving up meaningful third-period goals in their otherwise successful partnership.
Cassidy has options. The Bruins have played 70-games and are virtually locked into a playoff position. He has 11-games to figure out the bottom pair.