Anderson: Why do the Bruins seem content with their defense?

Ty Anderson
August 02, 2017 - 1:15 pm

James Guillory/USA Today Sports

For a team that iced an almost unfathomable 10 defensemen in their first-round series loss to the Senators, the Bruins somehow seem awfully satisfied and strangely comfortable with an offseason that’s come with the loss of three defensemen -- one to Vegas expansion and two to free agency -- and the addition of just one.  

That’s weird.

Roll the clock back about a little more than a month ago to when the Bruins were openly talking about their willingness to move their first-round draft pick in an 'impact' trade -- and even as recently as just three weeks ago for that matter, when the free agency class was more than scraps and projects -- and the B’s absolutely, positively without question needed to grab a left-shot defenseman to plant between the 40-year-old Zdeno Chara and puckmover Torey Krug on the left side of their defensive depth chart.

Back then, they had zero excuses not to make a deal, and the offseason would have become an abject failure had they failed to get their guy. They seemingly had chances to make these deals happen, too. The 2017 NHL Draft came and went with a trade that never came to fruition, as Minnesota’s Marco Scandella emerged as the top target for the club. He was not acquired by the Bruins, however, and was traded to the Sabres a week later. When that failed, the Bruins then shifted their focus towards the thin free agent market, where they appeared to be in a bidding war for two-time Stanley Cup winner Trevor Daley. The Bruins would not, however, go for a third year on Daley, and off to Detroit he went, $9.5 million richer.

That aforementioned lone addition, by the way, was the signing of right-shot defenseman Paul Postma to a one-year deal worth $725,000. Postma is a seven-year NHL veteran that just cracked the 60-games-in-a-season mark for the first time ever this past season, with one goal and 14 points in 65 games for the Jets. A right-side defenseman throughout his NHL career, Postma said that he’s going to practice playing the left side this summer. Kevan Miller, a right-shot who did a fine job of playing both the left and right side a season ago, is the fallback option should Postma prove incapable.

In other words, in the event of a single injury, the Bruins will still very much need that piece. 

So, why the sudden change and comfort? Well, the Black and Gold have seemingly lived this before, with Brandon Carlo making the NHL roster out of training camp just last season and never looking back, and with several young guns poised for a similar opportunity should they put the work in this fall.

“The conversation with the younger guys then is listen, don’t assume anything,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said during last month’s four-day rookie development camp at Warrior Ice Arena. “I’ve been in that position where you come to camp and see these guys sign and you’re like, wow, I can’t make this team now. That’s not the way it works. Charlie [McAvoy] came in here. Now was it out of necessity? We could have brought someone else up. It was him, and he played well. [Brandon] Carlo made the team last year right out of training camp. We didn’t expect that. Preparation leads to opportunity. The saying is off you go, and that’s what happened with Brandon. He beat someone and eventually played his way into the lineup and beat a couple veteran guys out.

“That’s the conversation that you have with the [Robbie] O’Gara’s, the Zboril’s, all the guys, there’s about six coming in. There’s [Matt Grzelcyk], [Jeremy] Lauzon, Emil [Johansson], there’s fairly young guys that all shoot left.”

That group Cassidy mentioned has totaled 73 minutes in five games of NHL experience (Grzelcyk played 24:58 in two games last season while O’Gara logged 48:02 of time on ice in his three-game sample to begin the season last year). The 21-year-old Johansson skated in seven games for the P-Bruins last year after wrapping up a pro season in Sweden, while Zboril and Lauzon just finished their QMJHL careers and have yet to play in a single game for the P-Bruins. It’s no secret that the taste of pro lifestyle in the AHL played to Carlo’s benefit when it came to cracking last year’s team.

In essence, it seems awfully strange to hitch your wagon to one of these players suddenly emerging as an NHL-ready defenseman that evens out missing on a Scandella or Daley (two players that I was never necessarily high on to begin with).

And Sweeney, for all the promise of his pipeline, seems aware of this.

“We’ve been fairly committed to allowing our young prospects to try and grow and take some opportunity,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney began. “Now, we’ve got some great competition and internal competition set up and I do believe there will be a couple players [that] will challenge; particularly up front.

“On the back end, probably not as much, which has led me to continue to look outside,” Sweeney admitted, “I’ve had some conversations. Our RFA situation sort of dictates a little bit of patience as well in making sure we clarify that before we move forward. But, I think the most exciting part is the internal competition piece that we’ve set a plan in motion and I think there are players that will step forward and grab that opportunity.”

But nothing has changed in that regard, so that opportunity has inched closer to a reality for many of those wide-eyed prospects, as veteran free agent options have continued to dwindle off the board and sign with rivals or elsewhere, such as Johnny Oduya (to Ottawa), Mark Streit (to the Canadiens), and Andrei Markov (to the KHL). And all while the Maple Leafs continue to scour the trade market in a straight-up feverish search of a top-four defenseman.

It’s all trending towards the Bruins slotting a right-shot veteran on the left side, which is not ideal, but will not be the problem it’s often made out to be, according to Cassidy.

“I think it gets overplayed at times. I thought Miller played very well on the left side, so, we’re going to go with the best six,” Cassidy, who is getting prepared for his first full season as an NHL head coach in over a decade, said. “We talked about that last year. If it happened to be four rights and two lefts, then so be it, we’ll move somebody over. Four rights and two lefts, I think in this situation, is how it’s playing out. Would we play five rights and one left? No, because Torey [Krug] and [Zdeno Chara] will be in there.”

Depth wise, with seven defensemen expected to crack their NHL roster before a rookie wins a job, the Bruins seem to be in the same position they were last season. And that's under the assumption that Father Time eludes Chara and he continues to be among the league's best shutdown defensemen. It operates with the belief that both Miller and Adam McQuaid -- players that have missed a combined 115 games over the last three seasons -- will be healthy. And perhaps most importantly, that’s also assuming that players such as Carlo and McAvoy -- the right-side pillars of your top four defense corps next season -- do not hit the sophomore slump in the case of Carlo or become targeted with greater exposure in the case of McAvoy.

That’s a tough gamble to make when you’re already doing that with the majority of your forward corps, with upwards of five prospects expected to compete for NHL jobs, no?

But it’s one the Black and Gold will apparently make given the message they’re trying to instill in those defensive prospects before they come back to Boston in September.

“[The young defensemen] have to understand going into camp that you don’t always have to make the team by opening night,” said Cassidy. “You can still be in the lineup by Christmas and be a good player for us as well. You have to keep that in mind.

“It’s not over on October 5 if you get sent down. There’s a lot of guys that come up partway through and then they stick. There’s that as well. You push someone out of a job; it might take you awhile to get in there. But, those are the conversations that you have with those guys so you understand the business side too.”

And while that sell-job may work for the prospects, it’s admittedly tough to understand a business side that’s been so quiet after what was exposed just a few months ago.

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