Which Bruins defensemen will win top-six roles out of training camp?

Sara Civian
September 04, 2018 - 10:33 am

Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

Bruins training camp is less than a week away, and with it comes fun positional battles like third-line center and second-line right wing.

Whereas the Bruins have openings and might even give a less experienced player a shot in the aforementioned, they’re stacked -- log-jammed, even -- with defensemen.

Assuming no last minute trade, eight NHL-caliber defensemen will contend for a role in the top six. Of course injuries and your Charlie McAvoy-esque black aces will shake things up eventually, but what might the pairings look like after camp?

Zdeno Chara: An anonymous NHL executive told The Athletic’s Craig Custance last week what head coach Bruce Cassidy and various teammates have been saying: “even watching Chara -- I think he’s going to be better.” 

For whatever it’s worth, I agree. He was training like a monster on the offseason. Head coach Bruce Cassidy told WEEI it wasn’t just the strength workouts you saw on his Instagram.

“He’s one of -- if not -- our best defensemen. Shutdown role, big part of the penalty kill...we've been able to incorporate other people so there's shared responsibility in the lineup,” he said. “But Zee’s got a lot of hockey left in him. I know that for a fact. He trains harder than anybody I know, his conditioning is through the roof. He tries to stay current with the game, those little things. He wants to have his legacy run a lot longer than just one year. I wouldn’t put it past him to play four or five more years in this league.”

We don’t know for sure that McAvoy will stay on Chara’s right to round out the first pairing, but the 41-year-old gets an energetic partner with a full year of NHL experience if he does. Pair that with his beastly training and his impact on the playoffs last season (I mean, he held new school Auston Matthews to one goal).

Doesn’t seem like he’s intending to slow down.

He’ll hold down his spot on the left side of the top pairing. There are a few options for the slot to his right.

Charlie McAvoy: McAvoy and Chara had a solid 2017-18 season, with Chara picking up slack on McAvoy’s inevitable rookie errors and McAvoy providing youthful energy to keep Chara going at full strength. McAvoy started logging the most minutes on the team and found a role on the power play. That allowed Chara to do what he does best in his shutdown role.

The Bruins could go with what works and put McAvoy back with Chara, or they could recognize McAvoy’s development and let someone else reap the benefits of the Chara effect

Brandon Carlo: Carlo had a breakout rookie season next to Chara in 2016-17 before McAvoy came along. His sophomore slump -- a dip in production from six goals and 16 points in 2016-17 to six assists in 2017-18 -- had something to do with getting used to not playing with Chara. He was on the upswing before a broken fibula ended his season March 31, though. The Bruins might pair him with Chara as a way of getting his legs back under him (cringe inducing pun only slightly intended).

It really depends on his recovery and development, things we’ll get a better look at in the first few practices.

Torey Krug: Krug is one of the top offensive-minded defensemen in the league, and he’s coming off a career season (14-45--59). Looks like he’ll hold down his spot on the left side of the second pairing, with McAvoy or maybe Carlo at his right.

Per Natural Stat Trick, Krug and McAvoy played 97:01 minutes together last season with a 56.4 Corsi For percentage, four goals scored and four goals allowed. Krug and Carlo have a bit more experience together with 655 minutes of 5-on-5 played together, a 53.4 Corsi For percentage and 30 goals scored and 20 goals allowed.

At least Chara, McAvoy, and Krug are obvious top-four defensemen, with Carlo likely rounding it out. Here’s where things get interesting.

Matt Grzelcyk: Grzelcyk’s strong rookie season earned him praise from Bruins Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, who told WEEI Grzelcyk “came along really well when given the opportunity.”

The Boston University product’s 61 games amounted in 3-12--15, a plus-21 rating, and a slot in the left side of the third pairing. He’s often compared to Krug because they’re 5-foot-9, but Grzelcyk is emerging as more of a puck-mover than a scorer. Considering he’s coming off a rookie season, his role -- while promising -- is unpredictable.

There’s a chance new acquisition John Moore could earn the third pairing left side role out of camp. General Manager Don Sweeney brought in the 6-foot-2, 210-pound left shot on his offseason mission to beef up the left side. Moore has 447 NHL games under his belt (32-67--99) and offers size to Grzelcyk’s speed.

Again, we’ll have to see what kind of development high-ceiling Grzelcyk’s had over the summer. We’ll have to get a better look at what Moore brings to the table as well, and of course the pairings are subject to change. But who Cassidy chooses in this role (if it’s even one of these two) will somewhat speak to where he thinks the team should be headed.

This leaves Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller. Penalty kill specialist McQuaid’s in the last year of his contract with the Bruins. He spent most of his 5-on-5 time with Krug and Grzelcyk last season -- 204:45 with Krug and 186:03 with Grzelcyk. He and Krug had a 50.48 Corsi For percentage. It's not like he's expected to be some offensive juggernaut, but with the way the league's headed (and with his injuries) he might see less of a role.

Miller spent the clear majority of this time on ice -- 544:01 -- with Grzelcyk and they combined for a 53.63 Corsi For percentage and a sound CA/60 of 47.87. He was finally healthy enough and in a role better suited to him last season, and it showed. If he can stay healthy he'll be reliable on the third pairing again.

Nothing will be set in stone, but the defensive pairings that come out of training camp could give us some insight into Cassidy’s direction.

 

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