There’s going to come a day when the Bruins have to move on from Zdeno Chara as a top-pairing defender. While there’s still a need for him on the team as a player tasked with logging a significant chunk of hard defensive minutes, we’re closer to the end of his career than the beginning.
This is something that’s been addressed in recent years as well with the team drafting players like Urho Vaakanainen, Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril to one day potentially fill in major minutes on the left side when the time is right.
Fortunately, Vaakanainen and Lauzon look like they could have top-four potential (though unfortunately, Zboril is developing slower than the team would have liked when they took him 13th overall in 2015), Even so, the Bruins may be better suited to deploy an entirely different left-shot defender alongside Charlie McAvoy, arguably the team’s No. 1 defender now and ideally for the next decade-plus.
Matt Grzelcyk has quietly been one of the Bruins’ best players in recent years and he has all the makings of a top-four player despite the fact that he’s been used in a third-pairing capacity for the majority of his career thus far.
When deployed together, McAvoy and Grzelcyk have looked like the best-case two-way pairing for the Bruins and this preseason has put that on full display. It isn’t surprising to see them play so well together, either, given their history together as a pairing at Boston University.
The tricky part about splitting up the pairing of Chara and McAvoy is where the remainder of the defenders would fall.
A Preview of the Bruins Defensive Pairings
Assuming the team goes with Grzelcyk and McAvoy on their top pairing in this scenario, they could roll with Chara alongside Brandon Carlo on the team’s second pairing and Torey Krug alongside one of the remaining defenders on the team’s bottom-pairing.
This would give the Bruins a chance to cherry-pick the usage of Krug and allow him to flourish as the offensive-minded player that he is while having a top-four that features a strong puck-moving and capable two-way pair with a shutdown second pairing.
The lack of offense on the second pairing is a bit concerning, admittedly, and that could be an issue in the long-run. Still, the Bruins current usage of Krug and Carlo together, while sensible on paper, is bound to misuse one of them with Carlo lacking an offensive game and Krug lacking a strong defensive game.
The combination makes sense until zone starts and usage to come into consideration. Starting Krug in defensive-zone starts hinders his ability to succeed. Starting Carlo in the offensive zone is a waste of his talent as well given the fact that he’s the team’s top shutdown defender.
Bruins Defensive Pairings Fit Specific Needs
What’s important to remember is that good coaches shouldn’t simply follow a flow-chart when it comes to personnel decisions or in-game management.
Even if Grzelcyk and McAvoy are being described as the team’s top-pairing and Krug alongside, say, Connor Clifton would be defined as the third pairing, there’s no reason that Krug and Clifton have to be relegated to just 15 minutes in any given game.
Another thing that has to be taken into consideration as far as Krug’s minutes are concerned is that he would still be the team’s go-to option on their top power-play unit.
In Krug, the Bruins have a player who has averaged at least 20 minutes of ice time per game in each of the last four seasons while also recording at least 51 points in the most recent three of those years. Using him in anything less than 20 minutes a game would be incredibly wasteful.
This is why the burden falls of Bruce Cassidy to use the right players at the right time for the 2019-20 season.
If the team holds a lead late in a game and is looking to close out with a strong defensive matchup, they could use the Grzelcyk-McAvoy and Chara-Carlo pairings in a rotation until the final buzzer sounds.
If the Bruins are trailing, they should be using Krug and Clifton in tandem with the Grzelcyk and McAvoy pairing as both are capable of producing offense.
Using players based on the situation is the most important thing and the Bruins could have the perfect three-pairing combo to run regardless of the situation they find themselves in on a game-by-game basis.
For now, the Bruins final roster projections are nothing but a guessing game. Both in terms of who makes the roster and who they play with are up in the air right now. Still, using Grzelcyk alongside McAvoy feels like the team’s best bet to roll out a balance three-pairing attack.