Over the last few weeks, the Boston Bruins have checked off the two largest items on their offseason “to-do” list — signing two young defensemen, Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo — to contract extensions. Both deals were bargains for the Bruins, who have done an especially good job of locking down internal talent at a reasonable price tag since Don Sweeney took the reigns as the team’s general manager in 2015.
As a result of generally smart spending (sorry, David Backes), strong talent identification and development, and a willingness on the part of players to accept less salary for the betterment of the team, the Bruins are now in a prime position when it comes to their team’s defensive outlook, both in the immediate future and down the road.
Cup Contenders on the Blue Line
Last year, the Bruins’ defense was among the league’s best and played a large role in the team’s deep run into the Stanley Cup Final. During the regular season, Boston ranked third in the NHL in goals against average (2.43) and sixth in shots allowed (2,416). During five-on-five play, the Bruins gave up the second-fewest goals in the league, behind only the New York Islanders.
Luckily for Boston, that group remains largely unchanged since last season. Up top, McAvoy’s go-to defensive partner, veteran captain Zdeno Chara, has at least one more season in the tank. With Chara’s workload dropping over the past few seasons, McAvoy could also line-up alongside former Boston University teammate Matt Grzelcyk — something that the Bruins have already experimented with in the preseason. Regardless of whether the Bruins arrange a Terrier reunion on the blue line, Grzelcyk will play an important role once again this season.
Carlo should slot into the second pairing, although his partner will likely be determined by who the Bruins roll out with McAvoy on the top line. Carlo, like Grzelcyk, has done more than enough to establish himself as a trustworthy defenseman, and his workload will reflect that. When it comes to lock-down defense, he could be the best option on the Bruins blue line — and I mean that with no disrespect to Chara, a future Hall of Famer, or the rest of the defensive corps.
Carlo’s most frequent defensive partner last season was Torey Krug, who has been (and will continue to be) at the epicenter of media attention regarding the next contract to be negotiated. We’ll get back to Krug in a bit as we discuss the future of the team’s defense, but as far as this season is concerned, he can be locked in as a second-liner and a go-to power play specialist (unless he’s traded, of course), just as he has been for years.
Toward the bottom of the team’s defensive depth chart is a logjam of players who could comfortably slot into the third pairing. Kevan Miller, who missed much of last season due to injury, is a solid option that could add some veteran muscle to the group. Conor Clifton, the former Quinnipiac stand-out, was rather impressive in his time with the Bruins last season and looks to be another good option to round out the starting six defensemen. John Moore offers another experienced option in the back, and journeyman Steven Kampfer, who saw both the regular season and playoff action last season, could be slotted in.
And then, of course, there are the youngsters — Urho Vaakanainen, Jeremy Lauzon, and Jakub Zboril. You likely won’t see these guys suiting up for the Bruins out of the gate, with the potential exception of Vaakanainen, who could crack the roster in the early fall, depending on how the chips fall.
Regardless of exactly how the Bruins’ defensive unit shakes out, the team should be in good shape. After missing out on the Stanley Cup by one game last season, the team is hungry to give themselves another shot, and this defense has the merit to get them there.
Torey Krug — Deal or No Deal?
With McAvoy and Carlo re-signed, and several young reinforcements making their way toward the NHL scene, the future of the Bruins’ blue line looks bright. That being said, there are still some important decisions to be made.
At the top of the priority list is the question of Krug, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season. Any time a player like him hits free agency, it impacts the entire outlook for a team who must decide how badly they need that player, what they’re willing to pay, or what other options might be considered. In this specific case, the decision could have an especially significant impact on the team’s future.
This is for a number of reasons. For starters, Krug plays a very specific role for the Bruins. He serves as the team’s go-to offensive defenseman and is the trusted quarterback of a power play unit that has been dangerous over the past few seasons. His value to the Boston power play shouldn’t be understated — despite what some may think, he’s not easily replaceable on the man-advantage.
To play devil’s advocate, the Bruins do have some other options to quarterback the power play, even if they wouldn’t carry the same level of success that Krug has. McAvoy’s offensive talent and poise on the blue line has already been displayed on the power play, and Grzelcyk has also earned the right to be recognized as a strong puck-mover and power play option. However, barring a jump in production, neither of these two players would completely fill the hole that Krug would leave on the power play — at least not yet.
Of course, there’s more to hockey than just the power play. The defensive side of the game has to be stressed for any blueliner, and that’s where Krug at times leaves something to be desired. Some people have a notion that the Livonia, Michigan native is a liability in his own end. I would disagree. He isn’t a bad defender, but he’s not as steady in the defensive zone as McAvoy, Carlo, or some of his other counterparts. With Krug, you have to sacrifice a little defensive security for a boatload of offensive production — something that just about any NHL team would be willing to do.
The biggest factor in deciding all of this is money. Without much cap space to work with, the Bruins will have to decide just how much they’re willing to sink into their 5-foot-9 defender. As an experienced defenseman who’s known for power play success, Krug would certainly draw some serious interest (and money) on the free-agent market.
If you’re a fan of Krug, here comes the good news: All signs point toward him being willing to take a pay cut to remain in Boston. But of course, that alone is no guarantee that a deal will get done. He said his camp hasn’t begun contract negotiations with the team yet, but general manager Don Sweeney stated that those conversations would begin soon.
If the Bruins don’t think they’ll be able to come to terms with Krug, then he’ll likely be shipped away before the trade deadline, while they can still get a return from him before losing him to free agency.
Regardless of whether or not Krug remains a part of the future plan in Boston, the Bruins’ defense has a bright future. Over the next few months, they’ll determine exactly who will be a part of that.
Cam is a Broadcast Journalism student at the University of Maryland. He’s the Boston Bruins Beat Writer at The Hockey Writers, and is an avid college hockey fan. Find him on Twitter @CamHasbrouck!