Last Thursday, the Boston Bruins faced off against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers and there is only one way to describe the Boston blueline as a group: It was a total shit show.
There. I said it. You can agree or disagree, but I have no other way of describing it. Blown leads, bad coverage, unable to protect a lead: it was a game everyone wants to forget. But from management down to the players, the Bruins should remember that game for the next seven months, because if they hope to have any type of success, they can not play the way they did against the Oilers.
I will go one further: Management should remember that game for eight months as that will take them into July 2022 and free agency.
On Saturday, the Bruins faced off against a Jack Hughes – less New Jersey Devils and cam out on top 5-2. The big difference on Saturday was that Jakub Zboril was in for the MIA Mike Reilly. I know I have had my share of criticism of Zboril in the past, but not on this day. It was easily his best NHL game to date. He was engaged in the offensive zone and was steady and almost always in the right place in his own zone. But the biggest change was that he kept his mistakes to a bare minimum. He didn’t make that one bone-headed move we are accustomed to seeing that would get him in the dog house with Coach Bruce Cassidy.
He spent the majority of his time with Connor Clifton as the pair logged 11:46 of TOI together. They were a serviceable pair outshooting their opponents 7-4 when they were on the ice together but the high danger chances favored their opponents 3-2.
Cassidy kept the same group together on Sunday against their arch rivals, Les Habitants du Montreal. Except for one play where Zboril went for the big hit and missed, leaving himself out of position, it was another strong effort from him at both ends. He was once again paired with Clifton, but what really piqued my interest was the 3:15 seconds he spent with Charlie McAvoy. Yes, it is a very small sample size, but one can’t help but wonder. Their numbers overall are better than the McAvoy – Matt Grzelcyk pairing.
Let’s look at each defenceman’s underlying numbers:
As we look at the pairings, there is a trend. Everyone expected (or should have) the Reilly – Brandon Carlo pair to pick up where they left off last season. But it has not been a good pair for most of the season. Cassidy opted to put Grzelcyk with Carlo and while they’ve had a couple of good games, the analytics say that the Grzelcyk – Carlo pair does worse.
Here’s a look at the different pairs the Bruins have used this season:
We all know what the Grzelcyk – McAvoy pair is capable of doing. But putting all your eggs in one basket is weakening the other two pairs. However, the Reilly – Clifton pair has fared well in almost metric. The Grzelcyk – Clifton pair has done okay, but not as good.
If we are to assume, and it will almost certainly happen, that Reilly gets back in over Zboril, you have an excellent pair in Grzelcyk – McAvoy and a pretty good pair in Reilly – Clifton. Am I saying Carlo is the weak link? No. I’m saying form your own opinion based on the facts.
What hasn’t really been tried is a Derek Forbort – Carlo pair, except mainly on the penalty kill. And if you look at the pair’s numbers, they are actually pretty good considering they are down a man.
Forbort – Carlo would give Cassidy a true shut down pair and take away some of the harder minutes where Grzelcyk and McAvoy would be eating up, leaving them to go up against weaker matchups. Worth a try? I say why not?
I want to go back to each defender and talk about something I talked about early on here and something the coaching staff wanted to improve on this season: getting shots on target and shot attempts from the blueline.
I’ll begin with Zboril. Getting shots through is something that has haunted him. He just wasn’t very good at it. But he has put in the necessary work and it’s shown. Again, when we talk about Zboril, it’s a small sample size, but he attempting the same two shots per game as he did a season ago. The biggest difference is in the shots making it on target. Last season he was at just 42.7% but this season he has improved by a whopping 24%. If he could keep that up it would be a blessing for the Bruins.
Reilly hurts in this department. Second only to Grzelcyk last season, he is down 12.2% from 59.6% and that is while attempting the same 3.5 shots per game. If you’re missing more than 50% of your shots like Reilly is, chances are your turning possession over much too often. And for an offensive blueliner, that doesn’t bold well.
Clifton is another surprise for the good here. He’s attempting half a shot more per game than a season ago and his success rate has jumped 18.1% to 64.7% which is the second best among defencemen. And that is all 5 on 5 because he gets zero powerplay time. If he can keep that up, the points will start to come for him.
Grzelcyk is usually the leader in this category and I am sure when the season is over, he will once again be at the top. Grzelcyk is attempting almost one full shot per game more than a season ago. That’s the good news. The not so bad news is that his success rate is only down 4.2%. That’s not too bad considering the difference is just 2 more of the 54 shots he’s attempted finding the target. And when you’ve attempted 13 more shots (on average) than this time a season ago, I can live with the drop in percentage. Like Clifton, if he keeps doing the same, the points will come.
Forbort is kind of an enigma because he has a pretty good shot. The problem is that he is attempting one less shot per game then he did last season. However, his success rate is up 13.4%. The problem I see with Forbort here is that he isn’t as capable of a more fluid skater of walking the line or moving to create lanes for himself than a more mobile defenceman. And maybe, with Cassidy preaching the importance of getting shots through, he is being more selective on when he tries. Just a thought.
Which leaves us with McAvoy. C-mac wasn’t shooting as much as he should have been earlier in the season but he’s now taking his own shot rather than dishing off – sometimes when he should have been more selfish. Earlier in the season, he was attempting less shots than a season ago, but now he is at 3.9 attempts per game versus 3.7. But success rate has also jumped 8.2% which is a big reason why he is a whisker shy of being a point-per-game defender.
As tough as I may have been to start off here, I have to be fair. The Bruins have not played a lot of hockey compared to most of the teams in the league. Finding cohesiveness and trying to get a rhythm and chemistry with pairs is difficult when you’re getting four and five days off between games.
I’m a very patient person but I may have lost my patience after Thursday’s game with the Oilers. But I got it back. If I don’t see something significantly better by American Thanksgiving, then I too will begin to worry.