Kalman: Grzelcyk plays expanded role on & off ice in Bruins’ win

Matt Kalman
November 11, 2018 - 1:30 am

Kathryn Riley-USA TODAY Sports

Not many 24-year-old, second-year NHL defensemen get asked to give a pep talk to a young teammate or to help shut down one of the most dangerous offensive lines in the league in the same day, but coach Bruce Cassidy didn’t hesitate to heap those responsibilities on Matt Grzelcyk on Saturday.

Grzelcyk was shifted to the Bruins’ top defense pair with Zdeno Chara midway through the first period. That pair, combined with the Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, kept the line of John Tavares centering Zach Hyman and Mitchell Marner off the score sheet at 5-on-5 in Boston’s 5-1 win at TD Garden.

“I kind of relish that opportunity. I think we were just kind of shaking things up, maybe more so it had to do with how they were playing, so just kind of throw a different look them a little bit,” Grzelcyk told WEEI.com after the game. “I think last year I kind of got a taste of it, the last month we had a lot of injuries, kind of playing with Kevan Miller against a lot of top lines. So I love that, I mean that’s a great opportunity to get out there and play against some of the top players in the world.”

The possession numbers for the Bruins when Grzelcyk was on the ice against Tavares’ line were impressive. In 10:06 he was on the ice with Tavares, the Bruins out-attempted Toronto 9-7. They out-attempted the Leafs 11-5 when Grzelcyk and Marner were on the ice together. When Grzelcyk and Hyman were head-to-head the Maple Leafs had a slim 9-8 edge.(Stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com)

In the third period, the Leafs even swapped Marner and second-line right wing Kasperi Kapanen in search of a way to break through against the Bruins’ new top pair and their top line, but it didn’t work.

Cassidy said after the game he switched the 5-foot-9, 174-pound Grzelcyk into the 6-5, 212-pound Brandon Carlo’s usual spot because he thought the Bruins needed quicker puck-moving against the Tavares line’s forecheck. The coach was proven prescient.

“So once the change was made, I knew to just kind of take initiative a little more with the puck, get your feet moving,” Grzelcyk said. “And I thought Zee was great tonight, he was really moving as well. He talks so much on the ice too, he’s a great leader, so it’s so much fun to play with him.”

Cassidy was also wise to have Grzelcyk put his leadership skills to work. The coach had the former Boston University captain talk to his old Terriers teammate and current Bruins center Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson before the latter's NHL season debut. Forsbacka Karlsson hadn’t played a NHL regular-season game since his only appearance at the sport’s highest level in April 2017.

“Yeah, you know Gryz, he’s obviously a guy that’s kind of been through what I’m going through right now. So ... to be able to learn from a guy like that, it’s incredible,” said Forsbacka Karlsson, who picked up his play after a slow start and was active at the offensive end while not being a liability at the defensive end for 11:19 of ice time.

“Sometimes a player translating those thoughts is easier than a coach and [we wanted Forsbacka Karlsson to] just play hockey,” Cassidy said of the decision to enlist Grzelcyk’s help.

Like Forsbacka Karlsson, Grzelcyk had a brief NHL stint (two games) in the 2016-17 season. Last season he emerged as a third-pair defenseman that could play up in the lineup when necessary over 61 games.

This season the Bruins expected Grzelcyk to do even more as a grizzled NHL vet, but they probably didn’t expect to cast him in the roles he played Saturday. Like most of the challenges that have been thrown his way in college and the pros, Grzelcyk handled them with aplomb and the payoff was in victory for his team.

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