Bruins’ Defensive Depth Being Tested as Team Struggles to Stay Healthy

With nine games remaining in the regular season, the Boston Bruins are closing in on an Eastern Conference playoff berth. They are in a battle with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the third spot in the Atlantic Division and with the Washington Capitals for the first wild card spot. Where they finish will not most likely be decided until the end of the month as the Black and Gold face a tough schedule leading into the postseason.

Since Jan. 1, along with the Colorado Avalanche, the Bruins have been one of the best teams in the NHL. They have done it on the strength of their goaltending and the offense breaking out when coach Bruce Cassidy changed around the lines and it has given them three lines producing, something they were lacking at the beginning of the season and in previous seasons. If there is one concerning area heading down the stretch in the season towards the playoffs, it’s the injuries that are piling up on defense and it is testing the depth on the blueline.

Injuries Mounting at a Bad Time

On their recent four-game road trip, the Bruins suffered two injuries to key members of the defense. Newly acquired Hampus Lindholm was injured in the 5-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on April 5 and missed the final two games against the Lightning and Capitals. Since his arrival, he has been as good as Boston would have hoped he would be. Being mainly paired with Charlie McAvoy, he has been good on the breakouts of the defensive zone, supplying an offensive game that has led to some key goals and playing all-around good hockey. Tuesday, Cassidy said that his recovery time is going slower than he originally thought it might.

Related: Bruins Acquire Hampus Lindholm From Ducks

Sunday against the Capitals, Matt Grzelcyk lasted just four shifts into the 4-2 loss after exiting with an upper-body injury. It is too early to know how long, if at all, he will be missing from the lineup, but if he was not able to return against Washington, there is a chance he’ll be sidelined. Say what you want about Grzelcyk, but he has been playing some of his best hockey since Jan. 1 as his offensive game has improved as he already has a career-high in assists with 18 and he currently has a plus/minus of plus-21, which is tied for his career-high in 65 games. Losing him for any amount of time would be a blow to the backend.

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

Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues, Brandon Carlo was the latest Bruin to leave the game with an injury after just six shifts in the first period and playing 4:48. To make matters worse, he still managed a plus/minus of minus-1 after being on the ice when David Perron scored 34 seconds into the game. Losing Carlo not only hurts 5-on-5, but it puts more of a workload on the other defenseman when it comes to penalty-killing. Charlie McAvoy is forced into more ice time killing penalties, something you like to stay away from to keep him fresher for even strength and the Bruins’ power play.

Bruins Depth Becoming Smaller and Smaller

On Tuesday morning, the Bruins held their normal morning skate ahead of their game with the Blues. Jack Ahcan was not in the Providence Bruins lineup Monday night in their 2-1 American Hockey League (AHL) win over the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and was called up to Boston with Lindholm and Grzelcyk out, before Carlo’s injury.

Jack Ahcan, Boston Bruins
Jack Ahcan, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Ahcan did not make it into Cassidy’s lineup against St. Louis, instead, the Bruins coach decided to go with a third pair of two right shots in Connor Clifton and Josh Brown. Clifton, who had played some of his best hockey following the trade deadline in March, has recently been a healthy scratch. Brown was acquired as a seventh defenseman but could very well find himself in a top-four pairing at the rate things are going. Playing two right-shot defensemen together is not an ideal situation, but it’s what they are forced into doing. During Wednesday’s practice, Ahcan and Brown were paired together as the third pairing ahead of Thursday’s game.

If more reinforcements are needed than what is already up in Boston, then the Black and Gold are going to be in trouble. After Ahcan, the pickings are thin. Aaron Ness and Nick Wolff are options on the left side and Victor Bergland is an option on the right side from Providence. At the trade deadline, despite getting Lindholm, the Bruins were also linked to Jacob Middleton of the San Jose Sharks, but general manager (GM) Don Sweeney opted to acquire Brown instead.

There is some good news in all of this with Lindholm skating Tuesday morning ahead of the rest of the team’s 11 a.m. skate. He could be closer to returning and Grzelcyk appeared to be the closer of the two and could return Thursday night against the Ottawa Senators. Carlo, who knows how long of a recovery time he needs. If one, two, or even all three do return at some point, the Bruins will have to keep their fingers crossed that there are no more injuries testing a group that is already thin, to begin with.

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