Matt Grzelcyk has established himself as a permanent force on the Boston Bruins blue line. The question is not, “Should Grzelcyk play?” He absolutely is a top-four defenseman. The big question now is, “Who should Grzelcyk play with?”
The Bruins top pair for much of this season has been the duo of Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk. The Boston University connection has been solid at eating minutes against opponents’ top lines and has continued to contribute offensively. This top pairing is the strongest offensive pairing, as McAvoy and Grzelcyk each quarterback their own power-play unit.
This duo is what any team wants out of their top defensive pair. They can match up against scoring lines, limit offensive chances, and create offensive opportunities when they clear the zone. In theory, this is a perfect match. However, it might not be what the Bruins need.
McAvoy is a top defenseman in the league. With his ability to dominate a game in all three zones, is pairing another creative, offensive defenseman with him watering down the impact Grzelcyk could be having? This is all to say, can McAvoy’s abilities better help buoy another defenseman? Would it, in turn, allow Grzelcyk to improve the play of a separate pairing, deepening the roster and adding an extra wave of a scoring threat? I say yes.
Related Article: Bruins Are Benefitting From McAvoy’s Offensive Production
McAvoy has already shown an ability to mesh with most of the left-handed defensemen on the Bruins roster. One idea that has been floated is to pair Urho Vaakanainen with McAvoy, a pairing that has seen a sizeable chunk of game action together. According to Ty Anderson of 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston, McAvoy and Vaakanainen have seen “over 84 minutes of five-on-five play this season” and “hold an on-ice shot advantage of 65-33.” He also points out this ratio is second-best among defensive pairings behind Grzelcyk-McAvoy.
So, that means keep Grzelcyk and McAvoy together then, right? No reason to keep reading this? Nope, can’t let you off that easy. These stats are the reason I am broaching the subject of splitting up this pair. If you can find success with other players playing with McAvoy, and then create a more dynamic pairing further down the lineup, why wouldn’t the Bruins pursue this?
Slotting Grzelcyk down to the second pair with Brandon Carlo has been the recent approach head coach Bruce Cassidy has taken. Whether they are using my logic of “anyone with McAvoy will succeed,” or something else, the past few games have seen Grzelcyk and Carlo paired together.
This pairing has some history to fall back on also. For years the Bruins second pair was Carlo on the right and Torey Krug on the left. These two players balanced each other with Krug looking to add the offensive jump while Carlo was the steadying force covering for his adventurous partner. Enter Grzelcyk, who was constantly compared to Krug as an undersized, left-shot defenseman who could bring scoring from the back end to the table.
Grzelcyk has turned into a very strong Krug 2.0. I think Grzelcyk has a more well-rounded game than Krug with slightly less offense to bring to the table. Because the Krug and Grzelcyk comparisons have proved to be so accurate, it is logical to see a Grzelcyk-Carlo pairing as working exceptionally well.
There is some thought that allowing Grzelcyk to play with the more defensively inclined Carlo could unlock that extra bit of offense in his game. Rather than playing off of Charlie McAvoy, Grzelcyk would be free to join the rush on a pairing with Carlo. There is no rule holding him from jumping up into the play with McAvoy, but in a hockey sense, he can see the need to cover the blue line and prevent an odd-man rush going back towards the Bruins net. In this pairing with Carlo, he would be free to activate into the play, and Carlo would be the safety net protecting from a breakaway opportunity, a role he has shown a willingness to play and play well in during his years as Torey Krug’s partner.
As you may have already keyed in on, my vote would be to slide Grzelcyk to the second pair to the left side of Brandon Carlo. While Grzelcyk and McAvoy have been statistically fantastic together, the bottom two pairs have been struggling for the Bruins. Mike Reilly has not been remotely close to the production he showed last season after escaping Ottawa prior to the trade deadline. Derek Forbert has been solid in his role, but he is slotted exactly where he needs to be. Adding responsibility or expecting offense to come off his stick is not what the Bruins should experiment with.
These pairings can be the foundation but are not binding. As any hockey fan knows, coaches love to tinker and experiment with in-game adjustments. If the Bruins find themselves trailing in a game, slide Grzelcyk up to play with McAvoy and try to create an offensive opportunity.
Also, it is important to hammer home that Grzelcyk is not being moved down because of his play. It is rather to give him more of a role driving the offense of his pair, instead of playing second fiddle to a defenseman who is creating Norris Trophy buzz. This move would also attempt to assuage one of the top needs for the Bruins as the trade deadline approaches, top-four defensive help. If Grzelcyk sliding down the lineup can provide a spark, the Bruins can redirect the assets that may be required for an outside addition to the blue line, towards a second-line center. The Bruins have a limited number of assets to negotiate with and dangle in front of other teams, so if they can focus on one area of focus with a stronger package, the team will be all the better for it.
These are the pairings I would consider if the Bruins cared to ask:
- Vaakanainen – McAvoy
- Grzelcyk – Carlo
- Forbert – Reilly/Clifton
- Reilly – McAvoy
- Grzelcyk – Carlo
- Forbert – Vaakanainen
You’ve made it this far, you’ve read my musings, let me hear yours now. Where should Matt Grzelcyk slot into the lineup?
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.