Turning defense from weakness to strength


Turning defense from weakness to strength

With the bye week upon us, we present a five-part series breaking down Boston’s 17-3-3 run the past two months and how the Black and Gold have gone about making the surge from Atlantic Division bottom dweller to legitimate playoff contender. Today, in Part Three, we look at the Bruins defensemen corps turning from big weakness two years ago to undeniable strength this season.

Don Sweeney’s biggest task since taking over as general manager three years ago was not an easy one: Find a young, transitional defenseman who could chew up big minutes, move the puck with efficient, unrelenting poise and essentially be groomed to take over as the No. 1 defenseman with Zdeno Chara entering NHL old age.


It was a huge void on a couple of Bruins teams that painfully missed the playoffs while casting off Johnny Boychuk and Dougie Hamilton in trades, and was forced into miscasting Kevan Miller, Torey Krug and Adam McQuaid as top-four defensemen for a damaging lack of better alternatives.

Well, that is no longer the case with these Bruins, who have fortified their back end through youthful reserves and turned a position of weakness into an undeniable strength by drafting, developing and utilizing the young back-enders running through their system.

The solidity of the B’s back end was on full display as the team ripped off win after win in their final 23 games ahead of the bye week and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue for the rest of this season and beyond.  

Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Matt Grzelcyk are all in their first or second full NHL seasons, but they’ve assimilated quickly to all things Boston, and with a really surprising lack of long, error-filled learning curves.

“There still is [a learning curve], but I think they’re good,” said Cassidy, succinctly describing why a youth-filled back end has been so good this season. “They’re good players and good players will eventually find a way in this league, some more quickly than others. Charlie was right out of the gate, and [Grzelcyk] took a little while to get to where he is. I think his [defensive] partner really helped. I think they’re a good tandem and they help make each other better, and I think that’s really what you want out of any defense pair.

“Carlo came in last year, so I guess he’s the veteran of the [young D-men] bunch. He had a good partner last year that got him through some things, and now this year he’s got Torey [Krug] and they’re still working on how their chemistry best fits. They’re good players. That’s the best way to put it and I think they’ve been paired with the appropriate partner to help them. The team is winning, we’ve got good defensive forwards that can cover up for some mistakes [and the fact they’re good] are probably the three biggest reasons for success.”

Certainly, Carlo will catch the occasional edge at a bad time or author the occasional bad turnover, McAvoy is almost certain to hit some kind of wall at some point during his first 82-game regular season and Grzelcyk is a player that will be overpowered if he gets bottled up in his own zone. But those three youngsters paired with Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug and Kevan Miller have helped transform Boston’s back end into three ideal ‘D’ duos with puck-moving greyhounds and grizzled D-zone warriors balancing each other out on each of them.    

The endless D-to-D passing in the defensive zone and the errant outlet passes aren’t as prevalent with the B’s as they were a couple of years ago, and that’s a reflection of the coaching, the talented personnel and the on-ice mentality these days.

Perhaps nowhere is Boston’s newfound strength and depth on the back end more illustrated than in this season’s development of Grzelcyk. The 24-year-old was coming off his first pro season in Providence where he put up six goals and 32 points in 70 games, and certainly didn’t do anything to dissuade his status as an NHL prospect. Still, there were questions about how his 5-foot-9, 174-pound frame would play in the NHL on a consistent basis and the fact that Torey Krug already filled the undersized, puck-moving role in Boston.

As it did for a number of young players with the Bruins, injuries opened up a spot for Grzelcyk once Adam McQuaid went down with a broken leg. The Charlestown, Mass. native hasn’t looked back since that Black and Golden opportunity with a goal, five points and an impressive plus-13 rating in 22 games paired mostly with stay-at-home warrior Kevan Miller. He has used his superior skating, really solid hockey instincts and a conservative approach to what he’s seeing on the ice into very good success at the NHL level.

“It’s his strength, so he’s got to play to his strength. He’s a good puck-mover and once he comes out of that turn [retrieving the puck] he tends to separate very well. He can see the ice. We’re playing fast and that is certainly part of it as we’ve talked about improving that position this year,” said Cassidy. “He’s been a big part of it. If he starts to drag it back further and run out of room that brings more fore-checkers down, and if they get angles and bodies on him then it’s not playing to his strength.

“The assertiveness and the confidence to [move the puck quickly] is an important part of what we’re doing, and that’s what we had to bring out of him this year. I don’t think it was automatically there last year or in the first few games of the preseason this year, but it’s something he had to buy into doing and he has done that. I think he will only grow. We’ll see him walking along the blue line and at the other areas of the ice, we hope, and the result will be more offense.”

Grzelcyk has been so good at balancing out the defense pairings, in fact, that McQuaid wasn’t able to get back into the lineup despite regaining full health in late December. As of this week, the Cup-winning veteran is still waiting for his first crack at playing again in a development that would have been unheard of in year’s past.  

Clearly, the Bruins won’t stay healthy on the back end forever with a dense second-half schedule expected to cause some roster attrition and McQuaid will get his chance. But the emergence of the Grzelcyk creates an interesting depth situation with the Bruins.

Could McQuaid or even Torey Krug become a moveable piece for the B’s with a young, inexpensive, puck-moving, left shot-defenseman showing he’s got the stuff to be an NHL-caliber player? Is there a high enough ceiling for Grzelcyk offensively that he could someday soon approach the 10 goals and 50 points that Krug posts as a PP standout?

Grzelcyk still really hasn’t shown next-level potential at the offensive end of the ice and that is one of his focus areas in the second half now that he’s established a consistent level of competent play in the NHL.  

Given that the Bruins are in the market for a frontline, left-side defenseman capable of playing big-time minutes in all situations, it would point to either Krug or Grzelcyk being surplus on the left side just as McQuaid qualifies as that on the right side right now.

One name barely mentioned in all of the permutations and developments this season: Chara. At 40, Bruins captain has been very good this season playing in the last year of his contract. He’s an aging linchpin on the back end, but a linchpin he still is after all of these years in Boston.

He still leads the Bruins in ice time (23:30), still holds down the title of No. 1 defenseman and is pacing for a decent six goals and 22 points (without power-play time) while sharing the team lead with a plus-20 rating this season. Just as Patrice Bergeron holds down the identity, attitude and work ethic up front among the forwards, Chara does the same on the back end while mentoring young players like Carlo and McAvoy.

“[It’s] the little things that happen in the room every day, his willingness to mentor younger players and work with the staff in that area. You can’t say enough about his ability to defend. He starts transition; he wants to be involved in that part of the game,” said Cassidy. “He is just a guy with a lot of pride, a lot of character, a lot of heart, and knows how to win. I think that permeates throughout our lineup. “Bergy [Patrice Bergeron] is the same way up front. I think these young guys are learning lessons every day on this.”

In other words, Chara continues to freakishly defy Father Time and looks like he’ll do it for another two to three years in Boston at the very least as the young D-men continue to take over the reins. He’s in the perfect situation as the dean of a young, developing back end where he can show McAvoy and Carlo – and the next wave of B’s D-men – how to be a pro.

While the Bruins are solid in the goals against (sixth in the NHL) and power play (11th in the NHL) categories this season as they were expected to be under Cassidy, they have been even better than expected on defense (third in the NHL with 2.5 goals allowed per game) and on the penalty kill (eighth in the NHL with an 89.1 kill rate). Those were a couple of areas that the Bruins have really excelled in their 17-3-3 stretch headed into the bye week, and where they adjusted most when injuries hit early in the year.

It’s also one of those team traits that helped turn Boston from an exciting, young up-and-comer into a legit contender this season.

It’s amazing to think just a couple of years ago that Boston’s defensemen situation was the biggest thing holding them back. The losses of Boychuk and Hamilton were crippling. Devoting attention to drafting and developing the next generation of D-men has not only addressed the situation but has quickly turning Boston’s back end into a strength guiding the team again toward elite status.

It’s probably not exactly the way Sweeney and Co. drew it up to start, but it’s got the Bruins back where they need to be even sooner than originally expected.   


Takeaways from the Bruins' 6-1 blowout loss to the Canucks

Takeaways from the Bruins' 6-1 blowout loss to the Canucks

Here’s what we learned from the Bruins Saturday night 6-1 drubbing at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Centre. 

1)  The young players for the Bruins are responding very differently while knowing they’re front and center in trade rumors going on this month. It’s a funny time of year when the rumors and the whispers kick up to high gear in the final weeks ahead of the NHL trade deadline, and it’s no different this season with the Bruins heavily involved with the deadline little more than a week away. Brandon Carlo has been mentioned early and often as a young D-man that’s drawn interest around the league, and it’s no surprise given that the 6-foot-5 defenseman has been a constant top-4 guy during his two seasons. He’s accomplished plenty at 21 years old and holds plenty of value around the league even if he’s never going to be a puck-moving demon like fellow youngster Charlie McAvoy. All that being said, Carlo responded to hearing and seeing his name kicked around by having one of his worst games of the season. Loui Eriksson basically backed him into the front of the Boston net on Vancouver’s first goal against the Bruins, and Carlo was an adventure with both defensive zone coverage and gap control all night. He finished a minus-4 in the blowout loss, and he was every bit that bad. Conversely, Jake DeBrusk has seen his name come up recently in the Ryan McDonagh rumors, and it’s clear other teams would hold him in high esteem given his solid NHL debut as a 21-year-old rookie this season. DeBrusk responded to the rumors by enjoying one of his best games of the season even if he didn’t end up on the score sheet. DeBrusk finished with four shots on net, hit a post in the first period on a nasty shot from the high slot and was turning pucks over while playing active, engaged hockey all night. DeBrusk was Boston’s best player, and that’s impressive given the circumstances. But then again, DeBrusk has shown early in his career that he responds in a very good way when he’s challenged by the circumstances around him. That kind of character is one of the reasons I wouldn’t want to give him up in a trade if I were Don Sweeney. Either way, it’s interesting to see how both of these young players are responding under the microscope. 

2)  Leave it to Loui Eriksson to pick his spot against the Bruins. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the years covering Eriksson, it’s that the Swedish winger can be a very good NHL player when he really wants to be. Like when he’s playing for a big contract in his final year with Boston, and posted 30 goals and 63 points while playing grittier and tougher than he ever had in his previous two seasons with the Bruins. After signing a huge six year deal with the Canucks, he responded with 11 goals and 24 points last season and is once again just “meh” this season as a minus player that’s pacing for much less than 30 goals and 60 points. But he rose to the occasion against his old Bruins team and scored a pair of goals while attacking the Boston net, and generally playing with an urgent approach that I’m pretty sure Vancouver hasn’t seen much of over the last two seasons. One of the best things that Don Sweeney did was take a pass on the passive, play-when-the-mood-strikes Eriksson, and instead replace him with a bigger, tougher and more consistent – if not quite as offensively gifted – winger in David Backes. Good luck with four more years of Eriksson, Vancouver. Yikes. 

3)  Once again Thomas Vanek gave Bruins fans a reminder that he is a certified Bruins killer and that perhaps they could use a player like Vanek at the trade deadline. Vanek didn’t even have a shot on net during the game, but it was his play attacking the Boston net that freed up Daniel Sedin for a wide open goal during the four-goal, first period onslaught against the Bruins. The 34-year-old Vanek has 16 goals and 40 points this season along with a minus-13 rating, and definitely stands as one of those second tier wingers that could be available to Boston if they strike out on Rick Nash as the top rental winger that’s going to be available at the deadline. It’s interesting that both Vanek and Patrick Maroon, who are both on Boston’s trade radar, will be available to the Black and Gold if they want them after tormenting the Bruins pretty much every time they play against them. The current tally: 33 goals and 68 career points in 63 games, and a plus-21 mark against the Black and Gold. That is some serious damage against the Bruins over the years, so maybe it bodes well for what he could do if the notoriously streaky forward donned the Black and Gold.  


*Loui Eriksson – Credit where it’s due to the Swedish winger that stepped up and probably had his best game of the season against the Bruins scoring a couple of goals and doing some of the things that allowed to put up a massive final season in Boston. The two goals and constant pressure around the net were a big factor in the win for Vancouver. 

*Jake DeBrusk – The Bruins rookie winger didn’t end up scoring any goals, but he was all around the net with four shots and one post on a Grade-A chance from the high slot. It was an impressive performance in an otherwise gross effort from the Bruins, and it also came in front of his dad, Louie DeBrusk, who was working the color analyst gig between the benches for Hockey Night in Canada’s crew covering the Canucks/Bruins game. 

*Anders Nilsson made 44 saves, so credit where it’s due in the victory over the Bruins. But the backup goalie was shaky throughout while not making any clean glove saves, so the best thing the Bruins ever did for him was fall way behind early in the first period. That took the pressure off Nilsson, and he was able to keep it simple with a big cushion and ride that to victory. 



*The minus-4 for Brandon Carlo was literally and figuratively the biggest minus for the Bruins in defeat. Carlo wasn’t nearly tough enough in front of the net early in the game, had some coverage issues in the defensive zone and really was a liability with Torey Krug as a pairing. Credit Carlo for stepping up and dropping the gloves with Darren Archibald after a big hit on David Pastrnak, and in doing so displaying a little toughness midway through the game. But it was too little, too late at that point.

*One shot on net and a minus-1 rating in 20:03 of ice time for Brad Marchand, who was clobbered early with a high stick that went uncalled and remained pretty silent in the game after that despite logging over 20 minutes of ice time. Marchand has had some pretty eventful games in Vancouver during his NHL career. This was not one of them. 

*The defense was dreadful in front of Tuukka Rask, but he also gave up four goals on nine shots before getting pulled after the first period. His rebound control was poor while he was in there in the first period and the Bruins only gave up a couple more goals the rest of the way, so it certainly feels like it was a combination of a bad night for the B’s and their goalie when they’ve both been so brilliant this season.


Morning Skate: Blackhawks fans ejected for racist chants

NBC Sports Boston Photo

Morning Skate: Blackhawks fans ejected for racist chants

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while blown away at the amount of money that Black Panther is going to make this weekend. 


*An ugly incident in Chicago where Blackhawks fans were chanting racist garbage at Devante Smith-Pelly as he served out a penalty during the Caps visit to Chicago. Hockey fans are better than this. Everybody should be better than this. Here’s the statement from the NHL released on Sunday morning, and I sure hope those four fans ejected are never allowed into the United Center again after embarrassing their NHL team, and their city: 

 "Last night in Chicago, individuals directed racial taunts and abuse at Washington Capitals player Devante Smith-Pelly," said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. "The National Hockey League condemns this unacceptable and reprehensible behavior. The League fully supports the actions taken by the United Center and the Blackhawks to eject the offenders and would expect the same response to any similarly unacceptable behavior at any of our arenas.

"While this incident was isolated in nature, no player, coach, official or fan should ever have to endure such abuse at one of our games. The League will take steps to have our clubs remind all stakeholders that they are entitled to enjoy a positive environment - free from unacceptable, inappropriate, disruptive, inconsiderate or unruly behaviors or actions and may not engage in conduct deemed detrimental to that experience."


*The Hockey Night in Canada crew goes over the latest in rumors, including the NHL expansion into Seattle and the unclear situation still developing with Erik Karlsson in Ottawa. 


*Eric Staal deserves plenty of credit for the success of the Minnesota Wild after he’s been reborn as a player since going to Minnesota a couple of years ago. 


*Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray wants the prices to come down for potential deadline deals, and certainly they will to some degree ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline. 


*The Dallas media is certainly getting worked up about Tyler Seguin, as they’re starting to call him Mike Modano 2.0 as they enter the playoff picture. My prediction: Seguin is on his best behavior this season in his first year under Ken Hitchcock, but a leopard doesn’t truly change his spots. The talent is obviously there in huge amounts if he really wants it, but let’s see what Seguin does when things truly get nasty in the playoffs. 


For something completely different: As I mentioned above, it looks like Black Panther is going to break all kinds of box office records this weekend. Good stuff.