Bruins’ 2021-22 Player Grades: Defensemen

At the trade deadline in March, Boston Bruins general manager (GM) Don Sweeney acquired the best left-shot defenseman available when he got Hampus Lindholm from the Anaheim Ducks. The return package was hefty, as expected, and was highlighted by prospect blueliner Urho Vaakanainen and Boston’s first-round pick in July’s Entry Draft going back out West. 

It was a need that Sweeney and Bruins desperately needed and the day following the trade, Boston’s GM locked up Lindholm to an eight-year, $52 million extension. Lindholm missed a chunk of April with an injury and then missed two games in the postseason following a hit in Game 2 from Carolina Hurricanes’ forward Andrei Svechnikov. When Lindholm was in the lineup, the returns were good and the future is promising with a possible Charlie McAvoy/Lindholm pairing.

Related: Bruins Acquire Hampus Lindholm From Ducks

As we move ahead with our Bruins’ player grades for the 2021-22 season, we will now hand grades out for the whole defensive unit.

Matt Grzelcyk

Grzelcyk played most of the second half of the season with a separated shoulder, which ultimately knocked him out of the first-round series against the Hurricanes for the final two games. Despite dealing with the injury, he managed to put up four goals and a career-high 24 assists in 73 regular-season games, which also included a plus/minus of plus-22, another career-high. 

Matt Grzelcyk, Boston Bruins
Matt Grzelcyk, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The playoffs were a different story as he made multiple mistakes, and made a costly decision in Game 1 with the Bruins down a goal in the third period when he committed a bad pinch at the Carolina blue line, which led to a 2-on-1 the other way and a backbreaking goal. Overall, the 28-year-old was a warrior and gutted through half the season with a nagging shoulder injury.

Grade: B-

Derek Forbort

The Bruins signed Forbort to a three-year, $9 million contract last summer and it was a rough start to his career in Boston. After the first month, he got better, played much more to his style as a stay-at-home-defenseman, and became one of the valuable penalty killers on defense with Brandon Carlo

He was a shot-blocking machine, especially in the second half of the season, and finished the regular season with 100 blocks and had 133 hits in his physical style of hockey, something the Bruins desperately needed on the backend. He is a good second or third pairing option going into next season and will once again be relied upon to be one of the top penalty killers.

Grade: B-

Mike Reilly

When the Bruins acquired Reilly in April 2021 at the trade deadline, he was a nice addition as a puck-moving offensive defenseman. Sweeney brought him back on a three-year, $9 million contract and did not end up having the same success in his first full season in Boston as everyone would have liked.

Mike Reilly, Boston Bruins
Mike Reilly, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He had four goals and 13 assists in 70 games, after having eight assists in 15 games following the trade in 2021. He found himself as a healthy scratch after the Bruins acquired Lindholm, but he did play well in his absence in the regular-season and playoffs, but there was more expected from him and he did not deliver, which forced Sweeney’s hand to get Lindholm. Reilly is the most likely candidate to be moved this offseason in a trade.

Grade: C

Charlie McAvoy

Before the season began, Sweeney locked up his young blueliner with an eight-year, $76 million extension, and the former Boston University standout proved again this season that he should be mentioned as one of the top defensemen in the NHL. 

Charlie McAvoy Boston Bruins
Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He finished the season with 10 goals and a whopping 46 assists, 19 more than his previous career-high in the 70-game shortened 2019-20 season. He defends as good as anyone in the league in his own zone, he became a more physical presence and has taken over the role as the defenseman on the top power play unit, and even worked in time killing penalties, proving his worth in all situations. He had five assists in six postseason games after missing one because of COVID-19 protocols.

Not much more needs to be said about the current and future leader on defense in Boston.

Grade: A

Brandon Carlo

If there was anyone who had an up and down season on the Bruins roster, it’s Carlo. He went through a disastrous November where he was sloppy in the defensive end, which played a big role in a 5-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 11. He did have his moments as a shutdown defenseman, but there were many more moments like that needed from him.

Related: Bruins’ 2021-22 Player Grades: Right Wings

The playoffs were a disaster for Carlo, who finished with a plus/minus of minus-5 and he was part of the Bruins’ struggles of getting pucks out of the defensive zone that led to goals too many times. If there’s a shakeup on defense this offseason, Carlo could be part of a big trade to make needed additions to the roster.

Grade: C+

Connor Clifton

As the season went along, Clifton found himself in the lineup on a regular basis and ended up being a key part of the bottom pairing the second half of the season and in the playoffs. He finished with two goals and 10 points in 60 regular-season games.

Connor Clifton, Boston Bruins
Connor Clifton, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He got better and better as the season went along, and was one of the more steady defensemen and trusted blueliners for coach Bruce Cassidy. In the playoffs, aside from McAvoy, he was one of the best defensemen against the Hurricanes. He is entering the final season on a three-year contract that carries a $1 million cap hit and should be part of the defense next season (from ‘Bruins sign Connor Clifton to three-year extension,’ Boston Herald, 7/1/19).

Grade: B

Not Everyone is Able to Be Graded

There are a handful of incompletes for some of the left-shot defensemen. Besides Lindholm, Jakub Zboril and Jack Ahcan made some appearances this season, but not enough to be graded. Zboril signed a two-year contract extension on May 16 after playing well in 10 games early in the season, but he had his season cut short with a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 2 against the Nashville Predators. Ahcan appeared in six games and scored his first career goal on March 10 against the Chicago Blackhawks and performed well despite being undersized.

On the right side, Tyler Lewington played in two games because of injuries and Josh Brown was acquired at the trade deadline from the Ottawa Senators for depth. Brown played in six regular-season games following the trade and found himself in the lineup in Game 4 against the Hurricanes in a 5-2 Boston victory, but he was on the ice for both Carolina goals. An unrestricted free agent, Brown will sign somewhere else for the 2022-23 season.

With Zboril signing his extension, there is likely going to be some roster turnover on the left side of the defense this summer, while the right side could see a trade or two also heading into next season. How Sweeney goes about that remains to be seen.

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