The Boston Bruins are good. That is not new information. Setting the record for most consecutive home wins to start the season cements that claim. Their lead in the Presidents’ Trophy, albeit early in the season, further points to the Bruins’ dominance this season.
There are several reasons for their ascension, but near the top of the list is new coach Jim Montgomery’s system. This system was expected to reinvigorate the defensive corps and a new level of offensive production and dynamism from the back end. Montgomery has easily attained this goal, gaining offensive production from his defensemen in a way last year’s team never could.
Bruins’ Statistical Support
Last season, the Bruins had one defenseman average 0.5 points per game (P/G). That player was Charlie McAvoy, the clear-cut, number-one defenseman on the team. After him, only Matt Grzelcyk and Mike Reilly averaged over 0.2 P/G. These stats are eye-opening given what the team is now producing, but last season under Bruce Cassidy, this was par for the course. Defensemen were expected to defend. They did not need to jump into the play; they needed to defend and suffocate scoring chances out of the opponent.
This season, that narrative has changed. McAvoy is over a point per game, and Hampus Lindholm is over 0.8 P/G. He has carried this point total while deputizing the top defenseman role as McAvoy recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. Connor Clifton and Grzelcyk both are averaging over 0.3 P/G. The next pairing sees Derek Forbort above 0.25 P/G, a fact augmented by his role as the team’s best shut-down defenseman.
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All these offensive stats are great, but they mean nothing if the defensive side is sacrificed in their wake. This season’s Bruins group has allowed the fewest goals against (48). When combining the play of their goaltenders, they allow the fewest goals per game (2.14), so it’s safe to say Montgomery has found something special with this group.
Bruins Passing the Eye Test
Besides the numbers supporting this new system, the Bruins’ play is passing the eye test. This season’s group is fun to watch, with defensemen actively joining the rush and looking to outnumber their opponents. Montgomery spoke before the season about wanting his defensive group to tweak some of their performances. One of his chief changes was moving the Bruins’ extra defenseman on defensive zone exits from in front of the goalie, acting as a passive safety net, to a more active role cutting to the middle of the ice and aiding in the breakout. Watch any game, and you will see one of the defenders slide to the middle as a winger flies out of the zone, looking for a breakaway.
On top of this new freedom to push play out of the defensive zone and into the offensive end, Bruins defensemen have also been encouraged to join the rush. As Boston enters the offensive zone, it is no longer the forwards joining while the defense trail behind. Now, one defenseman will hang back as cover, but when possible, the other defenseman activates and provides an extra body to overload the opponents. With this extra skater in the play, the Bruins have been able to find goals by somebody being left open as the opponent attempts to mark each shooting option.
A final point of emphasis was the location of shots. Rather than firing the puck from anywhere on the ice, Montgomery wants his blueliners to select shots that present a real threat to score or cause chaos in front of the net. The primary example of this change is not shooting from the corner of the blue line and the boards. Instead of shooting from there, a spot on the ice all but guaranteed to not result in a goal, the Bruins are asked to pull the puck more towards the point, creating an option to shoot, pass, or look for a deflection in front.
Whether a Bruins defenseman opts for the shot, aims for a redirection, or passes to a teammate, the move is meant to increase the probability of a goal. With the defensive point totals as a marker, this change has had a significant impact on the production from the back end.
Bruins Defensemen for the Rest of the Season
With this great start from the team and the defensive corps, the question remains, is it sustainable? Yes, in short, it is. These point totals are not built upon lucky bounces or weak opponents. The changes instilled by Montgomery and his system are changes that will continue to appear in Bruins games. Sure, whether McAvoy and Lindholm can sustain their early season point totals remain to be seen. They may regress back towards 0.6 P/G or slightly higher, but the production from the back end should remain noticeably improved from last season.
The players are showing they enjoy the system, and there is still room to grow as the group has only had a couple of months to understand it. This Bruins’ defensive group has shown the new level of offense Montgomery and his system have brought to the team. Although it is still relatively early in the season, look for this group to continue to surpass last season’s totals and keep providing chances in the offensive zone.
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Vince Reilly covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Vince graduated from Grinnell College with a Bachelors in History and Political Science and earned a Masters in Sports Administration from Belmont University. He has worked in the Predators Front Office on Analytics and Operations, with Major League Baseball in Replay, and now with Tufts University as a Director of Hockey Analytics. Vince can always be found with a coffee in hand and he promises his sarcastic tone will always shine through his work.