It’s easy for defensemen on the Boston Bruins to fall into the shadow of Charlie McAvoy, a genuine star who already plays Norris Trophy-level hockey at 23 years old. McAvoy is no doubt the most important blueliner for the Bruins, and certainly one of the best young defenders in the league — what fans and experts consistently seem to overlook as a major factor in this team’s success is the outstanding development and impact of Matt Grzelcyk.
Over the course of his career, Grzelcyk has faced no shortage of challenges. He is a 5-foot-9 defenseman who must constantly prove that he is not too small to play the position effectively. Most of his NHL minutes were spent on the third pairing before he was asked to fill the shoes of Torey Krug this season, Boston’s former power-play specialist and puck-mover, as well as jump up to the first pairing to play against the league’s best. Now in his fourth full season, he has overcome these challenges to build his identity and a unique skillset, which has translated into significant top-pairing minutes on a contending team.
This development took time, and the results have paid off in a way that every NHL team would want to see from a young player. He’s carved out a role with the Bruins as one of their most valuable defenseman alongside McAvoy. However, he generally goes unnoticed except, perhaps, for the attention he gets from a handful of analytics enthusiasts. Performing quietly may be Grzelcyk’s game, but it’s time he receives some recognition by the hockey community for just how good he’s been.
Bringing Skill to the Defensive Side
Defensive effectiveness is the biggest concern for a small defenseman, and one could argue that the reason Grzelcyk has been injured so much this year is because he takes a beating from larger opponents. However, his injury history isn’t too significant, and he played 68 games out of 70 in a shortened 2019-20 season. His ability to hold off forecheckers and use body positioning to make up for a size disadvantage has improved over the last couple of seasons. In particular, he excels at getting the puck out of the offensive zone before the opponent has the chance to set up shop, thanks to his excellent skating, speed, and high IQ.
This aspect of Grzelcyk’s game cannot be understated. His controlled zone exits are successful 78 percent of the time this season, the highest rate for all Bruins defensemen, and he has the lowest number of failed exit attempts per 60 minutes among them. His number of attempted zone exits are on the smaller side, perhaps from playing minutes with a fellow puck-mover in McAvoy; however, it is clear from the data that whenever Grzelcyk has the puck, he is extremely efficient at moving it out and driving the transition game. This is no fluke, either — his numbers for 5-on-5 zone exits vs. turnovers were right on par with McAvoy and Krug last season, and he was ahead of both of them in 2018-19, as well.
One reason why we may not pay much attention to his defense is because he doesn’t have a very flashy defensive game. We, as observers, are far less likely to notice a simple pass out into the neutral zone than, say, a big, bruising hit on the opponent (of which Grzelcyk only has 12), or a dramatic shot block, à la Kevan Miller. But a closer look shows that he is making the plays to prevent other teams from creating offense against the Bruins.
Taking the Reigns From Krug
Another reason why his defensive game is ignored is because he is constantly being compared to Krug, one of the most prominent offensive defensemen in the league. It makes sense: both are small players with a specialty in skilled skating and puck-moving. Naturally, this means the burden has been placed upon Grzelcyk to fill Krug’s big shoes. It is true that he is no Krug when it come to the power play — the Bruins’ recent struggles on the man advantage have told us as much — but are there stronger aspects of his offense that make up for this?
As it turns out, Grzelcyk is excellent when it comes to shooting — 61 percent of his shot attempts are shots on net, the highest for all NHL defensemen. What this indicates is that he is not only accurate, but picking his shots well. I’ve observed this with the eye test as well; his ability to walk the blue line and find a shooting lane is masterful. This is what his offensive identity is. He may not be churning out goals the way Krug did, but he plays to his strengths to drive offense in a similar way.
Grzelcyk stands behind only McAvoy in the points column for Bruins blueliners, and given the fact that he’s missed a few weeks this season, it’s reasonable to think that he could have a lot more with better health. The performances he has put up in the games he’s played so far demonstrate that he’s an important secondary contributor to the Bruins’ offense, even when it doesn’t look obvious.
Bruins Would Not Be Where They Are Without Grzelcyk
Grzelcyk has made big strides in the past couple of seasons and proven himself to be capable of first-pairing responsibilities, most importantly in games where he did not have McAvoy to play alongside. But the biggest takeaway is that he’s been a crucial part of this blue line in a time when it was facing several months of instability. The lack of bottom-4 depth, as well as the number of injuries afflicting their defensive core, has made the stakes of each performance even higher.
The Bruins asked a lot of Grzelcyk this year, and he’s more than delivered in the hour of need. Looking at his development as a player over the course of his career, and the fact that he is still young enough to keep refining his game, it’s entirely possible that we may not have even seen the best of him yet.
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