NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams from Nov. 16-Dec. 16. Today, the Boston Bruins.
Strong defensemen have been the hallmark of the Boston Bruins for years. But this season brings a shift for a defenseman group that could determine whether Boston makes another run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Torey Krug is gone, signed as an unrestricted free agent by the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 9. The status of captain Zdeno Chara, who has anchored Bruins defensemen since arriving as a free agent July 2, 2006, is unknown, with the 43-year-old unrestricted free agent stating that he would like to return.
That means bigger roles for players like Charlie McAvoy, who scored 32 points (five goals, 27 assists) in 67 games last season and who has taken over as the No. 1 defenseman; and Matt Grzelcyk, who signed a four-year contract Oct. 17. It also could mean relying on prospects like Urho Vaakanainen, 21; Jeremy Lauzon, 23; and Jakub Zboril, 23.
“Do we have a guy to replace Torey, to put up 50 points?” coach Bruce Cassidy said recently of Krug, who scored that many points three times in seven full seasons with Boston and scored 49 (nine goals, 40 assists) last season. “I’m not going to be naive and say, ‘Oh, automatically we’re going to plug someone in.’ We’re hoping that by committee [Grzelcyk] can help out on the power play, maybe Charlie takes a little more responsibility late in games, if we’re down.”
Since the 2010-11 season, when they defeated the Vancouver Canucks to win the Stanley Cup, the Bruins have allowed an average of 2.45 goals per game, the best in the NHL, including a League-leading 2.39 last season, when they finished with the best record in the NHL (44-14-12, .714 points percentage) but lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Second Round.
“We don’t know who’s going to fill in the rest of the back end yet,” Cassidy said. “We still have some question marks — is it [John] Moore? Is it Zboril? Is it Vaakanainen? Is it someone outside the organization? Answer’s a little bit incomplete.”
Cassidy highlighted Lauzon (6-foot-1, 204 pounds) as a player who might be able to replicate some of what Chara does as a big, shutdown defenseman if the captain (6-9, 250) does not return. As Cassidy said of the 23-year-old, “He could be a young [Chara], minus the 6-foot-9 part, of course.”
It’s not just on the ice. It’s leadership too, and that’s where the Bruins will rely on McAvoy, Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo, in addition to Kevan Miller, who missed last season because of injuries but appears on target to return this season.
“They need to grab some of that leadership on the back end,” Cassidy said. “Especially with Torey and [Chara] gone, there’s a void there because Torey picked up a lot of that too when [Chara] needed a break. … The next wave of the future of our back end would be happening now.”
Grzelcyk seems determined to make strides, especially offensively. He scored an NHL career-high 21 points (four goals, 17 assists) in 68 games last season.
“I want to come back with maybe a new mindset of wanting to initiate more on the offensive side of the puck,” Grzelcyk said. “I think we’re going to need to in order to have success.”
Though the most change comes at defenseman, Craig Smith joins the forwards as the Bruins’ biggest offseason signing. Smith signed a three-year contract Oct. 10 after scoring 31 points (18 goals, 13 assists) in 69 games for the Nashville Predators last season.
“The Smith signing really gives on the right side a guy that we know can play in the League, has proven it, whether he goes right behind [top-line forward David] Pastrnak or [on the] third line, it will play itself out, but either way he’s going to make us better,” Cassidy said.
The Bruins could be missing Pastrnak (right hip arthroscopy and labral repair) and linemate Brad Marchand (sports hernia surgery) to start the season, depending on when it begins. The NHL is targeting a start date of Jan. 1, and each had surgery in mid-September, with Pastrnak expected to need about five months to recover and Marchand four.
But the Bruins believe they have enough on offense, especially if forward prospects Jack Studnicka, Trent Frederic and Zach Senyshyn make a case for themselves.
“We love our depth up there and the competition from below,” Cassidy said. “We’ve always said, that’s what makes you better.”