Long before the puck dropped on the 2022-23 NHL season, the Boston Bruins knew that their defensive depth was going to be tested and tested severely. Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk missed the beginning of the season recovering from off-season surgeries. Then, after Grzelcyk came back and before McAvoy returned, Derek Forbort went down for a month with a broken finger he suffered against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Nov. 1.
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The Bruins’ top penalty-killing defenseman was missed during his time out of the lineup as the unit struggled, but since his return, they have climbed back to the top of the league. Now after nearly two months of health, the depth will once again be tested after Brandon Carlo left the 3-1 win over the New York Rangers on Jan. 19 after blocking a shot early in the second period while Boston was shorthanded. There are options to replace him in-house, but in the bigger picture, this should raise a flag to general manager (GM) Don Sweeney that more help on the backend will be needed by the trade deadline.
Bruins Option to Replace Carlo
If Carlo misses the next game on Jan. 22 at the TD Garden against the San Jose Sharks, the simple move for coach Jim Montgomery is to slide youngster Jakub Zboril into the lineup. The move would give the 13th overall pick in the 2015 Entry Draft his first game action since facing the same Sharks on Jan. 7 when he played just 6:47 in the Bruins win. That night, Montgomery dressed seven defensemen and 11 forwards, something he had not done this year. Moving Zboril into the lineup in place of Carlo was the way the first-year Boston coach was thinking following the win over the Rangers. The Bruins’ 13-point lead in the Atlantic Division over the Toronto Maple Leafs can help lessen the blow of Carlo being absent, if he ends up missing games, from the lineup and they should be careful with his injury history.
“We’re gonna be careful,” said Montgomery. “We’ve got a real good extra defenseman in [Jakub] Zboril. If he’s not ready to go Sunday, we’ve got the luxury of getting Zboril into games. We’ll see when we get home and we get our doctors on him.”
Zboril is a left-shot, but he gave Montgomery flexibility when McAvoy and Grzelcyk were out of the lineup by being able to slide over to the right side and play well on his offside. Prior to Thanksgiving when the Bruins lost 5-2 to the Florida Panthers, Zboril played just 7:07 and found himself in Montgomery’s doghouse and has played just one game, against the Sharks earlier this month, since then. He has, however, been traveling with the team and practicing on almost a daily basis. Sending him to the Providence Bruins in the American Hockey League (AHL) is an option, but he would have to clear waivers, and the chance that someone claims him and the Bruins lose him for nothing is very good.
Mike Reilly, who is buried in the AHL with Providence is an option, as is Anton Stralman who has not played since November, but in this case, Zboril is the better option right now.
Sweeney Will Need to Address Defensive Depth at Trade Deadline
At the last two trade deadlines, Sweeney has addressed the depth of the defense. In April 2021, he acquired a puck-moving offensive defenseman when he acquired Reilly from the Ottawa Senators. Reilly made an immediate impact as an offensive defenseman following the trade and was re-signed to a three-year contract that offseason. Since signing that contract, things have not gone the way that the player and team would like and now he’s buried in Providence. Last season, Sweeney acquired Josh Brown from the Senators in exchange for Zach Senshyn and a draft pick. Brown never really worked in terms of depth and had limited playing time before leaving in free agency over the summer.
By 3 o’clock on March 3, depth on defense has to be addressed by Sweeney. Carlo’s injury history with concussions alone should raise a flag for an addition, especially with the physicality of the playoffs. Grzelcyk is often injured, but an injury to a top blueliner could be a series-changing injury. Depth will be key in the postseason and as the Bruins saw first-hand last spring against the Carolina Huricanes when Hampus Lindholm took a big hit and missed some time. Right-shot would be the area that would be best addressed, but making a run at Jakob Chychrun on the left side from the Arizona Coyotes is an option too. Regardless, there needs to be an addition.