It’s a slow period for hockey right now, so the NHL Network is doing a tremendously solid thing by recapping each of the 31 teams' situations after the expansion, draft and free agency periods altered many rosters.
This week, the NHL Network turned its TV eyes to the Bruins and pointed to their right-shot heavy stable of defensemen as the clear strength of the team. That perception is quite the 180-degree turn from just a couple of years ago when the B’s were bereft of top-four defensemen on the back end after shipping out Johnny Boychuk and Dougie Hamilton.
This was further compounded by No. 1 defenseman Zdeno Chara approaching 40, and, while effective, clearly not the same workhorse he was when the B’s won the Cup six years ago. Even last spring, the overall organizational depth for defensemen was compromised when Torey Krug, Adam McQuaid and Brandon Carlo were all lost to injuries and the B’s couldn’t overcome losing three of their top-four guys against a pretty formidable Ottawa bunch.
Now, it appears people are getting much more excited about the incumbent Bruins group of D-men.
The NHL Network crew referenced Boston’s surplus of right-shot defensemen and surmised the Bruins could even make a move or two before the start of the season, given the never-ending search many NHL GMs have for good right-side D.
That concept isn’t foreign given the longstanding speculation that Carlo could be moved to Colorado for fast-skating, offense-making Matt Duchene. Still, it’s clear the pendulum has swung far to the other side now with the B’s defensive group being trumpeted as “the strength of the team” and speculation there that they sacrifice a loss or two to their ranks.
“They’re certainly dealing from a position of strength at a position that everybody covets,” said former NHL goaltender and current NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes. “Their drafting overall has been good and their development model [has been solid].”
That’s certainly something Bruins fans will love to hear and any reason for them to be able to thump their chest is a welcomed one. I can almost see the "Wolf of Wall Street"-style celebration on Causeway Street as we speak.
But that kind of pronouncement also might be getting a little too far out ahead of where the Bruins actually sit. Two or three years from now there’s a clear, easily seen path to where the B’s could be one of the best defensive corps in the NHL. All of the young drafted, developed D-men play into that scenario all the way down to Jakub Zboril, Ryan Lindgren, Jeremy Lauzon and Urho Vaakanainen.
Still, it might be a tad premature to tout Boston’s defense as its biggest roster strength.
After all, Chara is pushing 40 and will be much better-served if the Bruins can treat him more like a No. 3 or No. 4 shutdown defensemen playing just 20 minutes a night. Anybody who watched the playoffs saw Chara wear down quickly under the unavoidable workload against the Senators once Krug, McQuaid and Carlo went down. That will be a situation that continues to worsen if he’s asked to do too much as one of the oldest players in the league.
Then there’s Carlo, 20, and Charlie McAvoy, 19, who will both be expected to play top-four roles this season. Their talent is obvious and McAvoy, in particular, has all of the goods to be a dominant No. 1 defenseman within the next couple of seasons. Those two should lock up the right side of Boston’s defensemen depth chart for the next 10 years if everything goes according to plan.
But there are going to be ups and downs with young players thrust into top-four roles with that kind of inexperience. Last season pointed to that kind of inconsistency for Carlo throughout his rookie year. To expect something dissimilar from McAvoy this season is unrealistic and simply just a part of the D-man apprenticeship program in the NHL.
It will be a couple more seasons before Carlo or McAvoy are steady, consistent NHL veterans capable of shouldering a heavy workload without the occasional novice hiccup.
The Bruins also weren’t able to lock down a left-shot defenseman for their top-four in the opening of NHL free agency, so it looks like either Torey Krug or Kevan Miller is going to start the season partnered up with McAvoy. Clearly, Krug has been excellent for the Bruins while willing himself from undrafted find into an undersized top-four defenseman. Last season, he topped 50 points for the first time in his career.
Kevan Miller was good enough last season for the Bruins to protect him over Colin Miller in the Vegas expansion draft and he certainly brings value as a big, strong, hard-hitting defenseman who is better offensively than you think. But he’ll be asked to play on his left “off” side if he plays top-four minutes as a veteran on-ice tutor of sorts for McAvoy, which will take Miller a bit out of his comfort zone.
Krug and Miller have their strengths and weaknesses as possible top-four solutions and the bottom line is that the Bruins could do better in finding a partner for McAvoy. In an ideal world for the B’s, Krug and Miller would be your bottom pairing where the matchups could hide some of their limitations while maximizing their strengths.
That leaves Adam McQuaid and Paul Postma as the two remaining defensemen on the Bruins' NHL depth chart. They're players who'll give you everything they’ve got with good size and limited offensive ability. If we’re being honest, though, the Bruins would be best served if one of these two was the spare No. 7 defenseman and the other replaced by a better left-shot player that could log top-four minutes.
So, has the Bruins defensemen group vaulted ahead of the Patrice Bergeron/Brad Marchand combo as the clear strength of the team? No, they have not at this point. The defense is one player short and probably at least two years of development shy of being able to truly be the strength of the B's once they're likely again to be in the Stanley Cup contender conversation. That’s why the Bruins shouldn’t be dealing any of their young D-men and instead would be best served simply watching things develop naturally the next couple of years while building the right way.