GAUGING THE BRUINS DEFENCE ONE WEEK AT A TIME NOVEMBER 28, 2021

Well, Boston Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy went with the defensive pairings I was hoping to see at some point Wednesday evening against the Buffalo Sabres. And he kept them together throughout the game.

Cassidy paired Matt Grzelcyk and Charlie McAvoy on the top unit, although as the three pairs went, they received the least amount of ice time. Derek Forbort was paired with Brandon Carlo to form a shutdown pair and had the most TOI of the three pairs. Finally, he kept Jakub Zboril and Mike Reilly together and they are really beginning to form some nice chemistry together since Reilly returned from the coach’s doghouse.

I can’t state enough how well Zboril has been playing since being inserted into the lineup. And he’s done everything to force the coach’s hand and keep him there. Early in the first period, Zboril took a selfish and unnecessary penalty that would have, in years gone by, found him riding the pine. Those types of things were a regular part of Zboril’s game dating back to his time in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Zboril has earned the coach’s trust and credit Cassidy for throwing him right back out there. The message has been received.

Zboril and Reilly have been so engaged in the offensive zone that it is a treat to watch. Reilly was slumping when it came to finding the target, but he’s worked on it and his shots on target percentage is slowly creeping in the right direction. And Zboril is reaching a new stratosphere with his success at getting pucks through as he is succeeding at near 20% above his career average. The Reilly goal that came off a rebound produced from a Zboril shot is something Cassidy has been preaching all season long – get your shots through and with a purpose and pounce on rebounds. That’s how it’s suppose to work.

Although the numbers don’t look great for the Forbort/Carlo pair, remember that those numbers are in all situations so it includes penalty kill time. I though they did an above average job on the PK and keeping the Sabres to the outside for the most part, despite Forbort’s lack of (that might not be the right term I was looking for) skating. And of course, the Grzelcyk/McAvoy pair were Grzelcyk and McAvoy. Nothing else to say.  

Here’s a look at the pairs against the Sabres. I only included the starting three pairs as no other pairing received more than 1:16 TOI together.

On Friday afternoon, the Bruins were up against the New York Rangers and the coaching staff kept things the same for the most part. I know the easiest thing to do is blame the defence and sure they can shoulder some of the blame because they were not as efficient as they were Wednesday against the Sabres but…

On the first goal, it was the Bruins forwards who failed to clear the zone with under 25 seconds remaining. Sure, the blueliners could have (should they have?) been better prepared, but with less than a minute remaining, that puck has to clear the zone.

The book is out on Jeremy Swayman, shoot for rebounds and this is where you have to be. (I’m not worried about Swayman as he is too good a goaltender not to work through it) But it was a bad rebound into a dangerous spot. Remember the highway robbery save Igor Shesterkin made on Charlie Coyle when they were looking for the equalizer? That’s rebound control at its finest. That said, once again I put the blame on the forwards. The defencemen were already engaged against Rangers forwards and it was up to the Bruins forwards to come down low and protect the house. Instead, they were waiting to fly the zone.

On the third goal, three Bruins forwards went into the Rangers corner against one Ranger defender looking for the puck. Unfortunately, it was the Rangers that came away with the puck and they were off to the races on a 3 on 2. I don’t know that the defencemen could have played it any better. But the forwards have to be certain to gain possession in that situation or one of them needs to back off to protect against exactly what happened.

On the last of two shifts Zboril had with McAvoy, Zboril did get burned, but the Bruins were pressing for the equalizer. What does it say that Zboril was out with McAvoy in that situation? Adam Fox was attempting to clear the zone with an attempt about waist high. Zboril was moving to his right to block the clear. Unfortunately for him, Julien Gauthier got just enough of the puck to direct it just to Zboril’s left. Being left flatfooted, Gauthier beat him to the puck and off they were on a two-on-one and the rest is history.

On Sunday, Cassidy went with the same six defenders yet again, which of course meant Connor Clifton was the odd man out – again. However, Cassidy went back to the Forbort/McAvoy and Grzelcyk/Carlo pairings. Stat wise, the Reilly/Zboril pairing had their worst outing since being put together. Forbort/McAvoy had one of their best nights, statistically speaking, of the season. But this was against the lowly Vancouver Canucks, who they should have handled easily, but it took two third period powerplay goals to pull out a victory. Frankly, that’s unacceptable.

Is this a Stanley Cup defence? No. But it’s not as far off as most people think it is. Between McAvoy, Grzelcyk, Reilly, Zboril and Forbort, you can make two pairs that work just fine. But nothing seems to be working on the left side with Carlo, no matter who you put there. Even a Carlo/McAvoy, despite only 2:45 TOI together was abysmal.

Based on a season ago, one would have thought a Reilly/Carlo pair was going to be very good to great. Not so. Grzelcyk/Carlo have done well in the past, but now? It’s worse than Reilly/Carlo. Statistically speaking, about the only one who has had success with Carlo this season is Zboril. But how much can you put into that with them having just 8:28 TOI together? And if Cassidy wants to try it, that means one of Grzelcyk or Reilly will have to move to the right side or, one of them sits and you bring Clifton in.

The only option that I can see is that GM Don Sweeney has to go out and find a defender who can play the left side, is a strong two-way defenceman and can kill penalties.

As I said earlier, this is not a Stanley Cup Caliber defence (I know some of you will want to debate that and it’s fine). But the problem with the Bruins goes deeper. They lead the NHL in shots per game, over five shots per game more than the league average. Yet they are in the bottom six in the league in high danger shots for. That means they are not getting to the net where most of the goals are created in this league and second chance opportunities.

The defence is doing a much better job at getting pucks through to the opposing goaltender, yet it’s not showing up on the scoresheet. Why? Because they are not getting to the net for those rebounds created from those shots. It’s no secret that to score in the NHL today, you have to get to the net for second chance opportunities, deflections and screens. We can’t blame the defencemen for that. Much too often the forwards are not coming back hard enough on the backcheck to allow the defencemen to stand up at the blue line. This isn’t a coaching issue as it has been proven to work, this is an execution issue. It’s lacking at times and it costs them.

Sweeney needs to solve the issue up front before he solves the issue in the backend.

Otherwise, we’re in for more of the same.

Follow me on Twitter @dominictiano

Published by Dominic Tiano

Following the Ontario Hockey League players eligible for the NHL Draft. I provide season-long stats, updates and player profiles as well as draft rankings.

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