Bruins Need to Keep Clifton & Forbort Defensive Pairing Together

Before the puck was dropped on the 2022-23 regular season for the Boston Bruins, they knew they were going to be shorthanded on defense. Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk were beginning the season recovering from off-season surgeries. If that was not enough of a blow, Brandon Carlo left after the first period against the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 15 after taking a hit from Liam O’Brien. Carlo has not played since with an upper-body injury.

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First-year coach Jim Montgomery knew his defensive depth was going to be tested right away, but he never envisioned that he would go as deep as he has had to, with Dan Renouf being the latest Bruin to enter the lineup for Carlo. With all the mixing and matching that has gone on in the first four games, two defensemen have stuck out and are a big reason why the Black and Gold have won three of their first four games.

Clifton & Forbort Have Been Early-Season Leaders on Defense

All eyes at the beginning of the season were on Hampus Lindholm to take over the reins as the leader on the blueline in the absence of McAvoy. Lindholm, acquired from the Anaheim Ducks at the trade deadline last March, has been good in all situations, however, two other defensemen have stuck out above the rest in the short sample size of games.

Connor Clifton entered the season as the lone right-shot defenseman with Carlo and the former Quinnipiac University standout is playing his best hockey during his fifth season with the Bruins. In his previous seasons, he has been in and out of the lineup, but never played with a lot of consistency. This season, he has been key not only 5-on-5, but he has logged key penalty-killing shifts, especially in Carlo’s absence. 

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

Clifton is not going to light up the stats sheet at the end of the night as he has five goals and 19 career assists in 158 games, but the 5-foot-11, 190-pound draft pick of the Coyotes in the fifth in 2013, has been all the little things Montgomery needs. He has been physically standing up opponents at the defensive blueline, he’s been making good offensive zone decisions in Montgomery’s new system that allows defensive freedom, and has been making smart decisions with the puck. He picked up two assists in the Bruins’ 5-3 win over the Florida Panthers, his third and fourth helpers of the season in just three games.

“I guess I’m just giving it to the right people,” said Clifton. “They’re doing all the work.”

It was not the best start to his Bruins career for Derek Fobort after signing a three-year contract as a free agent in the summer of 2021. He was turning the puck over, and was on the ice for a lot of goals in the early part of the season. As the season went along, he got better and became a top penalty killer with Carlo. This season, the former Winnipeg Jets blueliner has taken his game to another level.

He is still the top penalty-killing defenseman, but his decisions on both ends of the ice have been better, and his defensive zone breakouts have been much cleaner. He is blocking shots at a high rate again after blocking 100 last season and he even scored his first goal of the season against Arizona in the third period to break a 3-3 tie and it turned out to be the game-winning goal.

Bruins Should Keep Clifton & Forbort Pairing Together

Montgomery has found a very good pairing with Clifton and Forbort. You’re not going to get much offense, but you are going to get what you have been getting, two physical defensemen that are playing a lot of minutes doing all the little things to help you win. Forbort is averaging 20:46 of minutes a night this season with 10 blocked shots and a plus/minus of plus-3. Clifton is averaging 22:58 a night, with a plus-5 and four assists. What is even more impressive with his plus-5 is he was on the ice for both goals by the Washington Capitals on opening night after Reilly was caught deep in the offensive zone.

Derek Forbort Boston Bruins
Derek Forbort, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Boston is in a tough spot as far as the health on defense goes. Currently, the only healthy right shot is Clifton and Montgomery has been getting strong efforts with his left shots playing on their off-side. Jakub Zboril, Mike Reilly, Lindholm, and Dan Renouf are helping keep the unit above water, but it’s Clifton and Forbort steering the ship right now.

There is no reason that Clifton and Forbort should be broken up as the early-seaosn numbers don’t lie. Can both of them sustain this over an 82-game season? Highly unlikely, but right now if you’re  Montgomery, going with the hot hand, or in this case, the hot pair, is what you need to do. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

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