Opportunity knocking for these Bruins defensemen in training camp

Matt Kalman
September 02, 2019 - 2:10 pm

Bruins training camp opens Sept. 12 and WEEI.com is looking ahead to the issues that will have to be resolved on the way to opening night.

Eventually unsigned restricted free agents Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo are going to get paid, most likely by the Bruins.

Down the road injured defensemen Kevan Miller and John Moore will be healed and ready to suit up for Boston.

But with a little less than two weeks until training camp, half the projected defense corps will be unavailable when the 2019-20 Bruins report to Warrior Ice Arena Sept 12.

If the McAvoy and Carlo contract stalemates continue through training camp and linger into the season, they could have major implications for the Bruins, as TSN analyst Craig Button pointed out during his appearance on The Skate Podcast.

“You look at where the Boston Bruins find themselves with their two players, Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, Mitch Marner in Toronto, I mean this is a highly competitive division, and you ask yourself where you’ll be without those players,” Button said about all the major unsigned RFAs from the Atlantic Division. “Well does Boston want to play Game 7 against Toronto on home ice or do they want to go to Toronto? And I think that that becomes a real significant understanding of how important these players are to your team. And I think teams are trying to understand what the marketplace is, but they know how important the players are to their teams.”

Over the past three years, the Bruins’ depth has passed when tested by injuries and illness, and players have taken advantage of their opportunities to keep the Bruins near the top of the NHL standings. Before we look at who will get the best opportunity to thrive if Boston continues to miss four defensemen, let’s look at the defense depth chart including everyone, and listing them all on their strong side:

Zdeno Chara       Charlie McAvoy

Torey Krug          Brandon Carlo

Matt Grzelcyk     Kevan Miller

John Moore        Connor Clifton

Urho Vaakanainen           Steven Kampfer

Jeremy Lauzon   Axel Andersson

Jakub Zboril        Alex Petrovic*

Wiley Sherman

Bold: Unsigned restricted free agents as of 9/2; Italics: Injured and unlikely to be available to start the season; *: in camp on a PTO.

Making up for Miller and Moore’s absence was going to be tough enough, but minus McAvoy and Carlo the Bruins are going to have strength in numbers. Here are the five defensemen with the best chance to make sure the Bruins don’t sink with their depleted defense, and/or advance their own careers beyond what they’ve been to this point:

Matt Grzelcyk

The Charlestown native’s average ice time increased to 19:08 last season from 16:44 the season before. He had just 18 points (three goals, 15 assists) but everyone saw how important his puck-moving was when he missed a few games in the Stanley Cup Final.

Now 25 and heading into another contract season (he’ll be a RFA next summer barring an extension), Grzelcyk might see another increase of ice time if the Bruins are without two of their top four for any part of the regular season. That could mean a switch over to the right side for the left-handed shot; he proved he could do that effectively last season even if he was decidedly better on the left.

If the right-side fill-ins for McAvoy and Carlo don’t produce, you could see Grzelcyk playing alongside Chara. Or you could see him driving his own pair on his strong side, maybe mentoring a younger right-shot D.

Wherever he plays, Grzelcyk’s continued development is going to be vital to the Bruins’ chances of early-season success. And he might give the Bruins some more hints about whether they can survive without Torey Krug in the seasons ahead.

Steven Kampfer

Every time you think Kampfer might not find a spot with the Bruins, something happens to open up playing time. After re-signing for two seasons this summer, Kampfer probably didn’t imagine he’d have a legit chance to be in Boston’s top six this fall. But the 30-year-old was serviceable in 35 games last season (he scored three goals) and could be the type of steady, veteran option coach Bruce Cassidy will turn to once the season starts and the games count. If he can just play simple, he could average a little more than the 14:38 of ice time he averaged last season, help out on the second power play and prove to be a bargain at an $800,000.

This is Kampfer’s big chance to prove he can be a NHL regular, with Boston or elsewhere.

“I’ve had open and honest conversations with the coaches and the staff and it’s ‘show up and compete for a job come September.’ Whatever they ask of me, we go from there,” Kampfer said in June. “If it’s doing the same thing again this year then I understand that. I would like to play, but you have to earn that.”

Connor Clifton

There’s no way to tell if Clifton can get much better than he was last season when he surprisingly filled in for 19 games in the regular season and 18 games in the postseason. But considering his quantum leap from his first pro season to last year, one wouldn’t want to limit him to part-time status this season. In some ways he’s the key to this defense corps whether Carlo and/or McAvoy signs or not because at the bare minimum Clifton could be an upgrade on a healthy Miller on the third pair. Without the top two right Ds, Clifton’s ability to harness his aggressiveness and be a strong two-way producer could make or break the Bruins’ attempt to piece together a defense corps.

Urho Vaakanainen

In an ideal world, the Bruins would be so deep on D they’d give Vaakanainen some more seasoning in Providence of the AHL. After battling in the men’s league in Finland for a couple seasons his first North American season was limited to 30 games in Providence and two for Boston mostly because of a concussion

With a solid summer, Vaakanainen was going to put himself in a strong position to compete for a NHL job regardless, and now he’ll have a chance to prove he could be the right-side savior (his weak side) Boston’s searching for this camp.

Button believes the 20-year-old can help the Bruins maintain some semblance of a transition game.

“You know Urho Vaakanainen, I don’t think he’s going to be a big offensive player, he’s a an excellent skater, he’s a really good competitor and you need to get the puck out of your zone,” Button said.

Jakub Zboril

And lastly there’s the real X Factor, Boston’s 2015 13th overall pick, who has been slow to develop but by all accounts has been trending in the right direction. The 22-year-old left-handed shot has played his off side and could be the stay-at-home, third-pair defender Boston will need in the early going. This could be a make-or-break training camp for the Czech Republic native, who had 19 points (four goals, 15 assists) in 56 games for Providence last season.

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