Bruins’ Will Have Tough Decision When Grzelcyk Returns to Lineup

As training camp wrapped up, the Boston Bruins received positive news for the defensive corps. Matt Grzelcyk is ahead of schedule in his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Rather than a return closer to Thanksgiving, he is already back on the ice, practicing with the team. While this accelerated timeline is a positive for the Bruins who will be returning a puck-moving defenseman to the team’s top four, his return will also move up the impending roster decisions on which defenseman is the odd man out. With Grzelyck likely operating on the second pair alongside Brandon Carlo, and returning to his power play role, what names would appear unsafe?

We can start by deciding who is safe. Hampus Lindholm? Safe. Very, very safe. Cemented on the top pair, and continually used as an example of the building blocks that will keep this team competitive after the season, he will not have to worry about a new home.

Brandon Carlo is also safe. As a right-shot defenseman who is also still young enough to be considered part of the next wave, he will not be a trade piece unless a deal blows Don Sweeney away.

Derek Forbort would appear at first glance an option to move as the left-side defenseman on the third pair but given his ability to provide shutdown minutes and alleviate some hard minutes from Lindholm, while also playing top minutes on the penalty kill means he is not going anywhere either.

Following his professional tryout (PTO) and subsequent contract, Anton Stralman is another safe bet to remain in Boston. As a right-shot version of Forbort, he plays a role that does not have a clear replacement in the organization.

Related: 3 Bruins’ Standouts From the Preseason

That leaves three names to decide between. Mike Reilly, Connor Clifton, and Jakub Zboril.

Mike Reilly

Mike Reilly was the player who had been the odds-on favorite to be moved prior to the season, still seems to be the leader as the regular season begins. Although he had a strong preseason, appearing healthy following his own offseason ankle surgery, and possessing the skating and puck-moving abilities Jim Montgomery sought from his team, Reilly was still sent through waivers at the end of camp as the Bruins worked to remain salary-cap-compliant. He cleared waivers and has since been recalled. The fact this decision was made at all could hint at the Bruins’ mindset though.

In an ideal world, Reilly would earn enough meaningful starts to impress another team, who may be willing to send a trade proposal to Boston to ensure he ends up with their team instead of tempting the waiver wire. The Bruins likely tipped their hand already, showing a willingness to send him down to the American Hockey League (AHL), meaning few teams will be eager to offer a reasonable trade package to secure his services.

Mike Reilly Boston Bruins
Mike Reilly, Boston Bruins (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Reilly’s $3 million cap hit is also a mitigating factor. The Bruins will not have the cap space to retain him, but with the cap only increasing by $1 million since last season, few competitive teams will have the space to store his contract. Most teams that do have the cap space are not the most competitive group, meaning they can trust their waiver claim to be enough to land him. If they miss out, they will remain in the position they currently occupy, preparing for next summer’s draft.

Connor Clifton

Connor Clifton is the sole right-shot defenseman to make the list of trade candidates. One could argue this fact alone makes him the least likely to be traded, as moving him would force Zboril or Reilly to play their off-side and would stray from the even split of left and right shot defensemen most coaches prefer. Both of them have shown an ability to play their off-hand though, a fact which works against Clifton in the fight for third-pair minutes.

Of the three options, Clifton has the clearest picture of what he is as a player. The Bruins know his strengths, a high motor, willingness to shoot the puck, and ability to engage in physical battles, as well as his weaknesses, overplaying the puck, not being an offensive driver, and a propensity for being dragged out of the play to chase a hit. As such, the hiring of Montgomery impacts him the least. He may have a shot to play the run-and-gun style that may fit his game, but he will not be cracking the top-four or seeing crucial minutes on the team.

Connor Clifton Boston Bruins
Connor Clifton, Boston Bruins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Knowing he does not have as much of a ceiling is likely enough to keep some other teams from taking a chance on Clifton. The Bruins would likely have to move him for “future considerations” aka nothing, or in a best-case scenario, maybe a seventh-round draft pick or player to add to the Providence Bruins. A team lower in the standings may have a use for him, but on most teams, he will be exactly what he is in Boston, a third-pair or depth defenseman who is fine, but not a player that teams will be trading for a few weeks into the season.

Jakub Zboril

The last name on this list is the biggest wildcard. Jakub Zboril has the most question marks, but also the highest upside of any of the three defensemen listed in this article. He is recovering from an ACL injury, so there is concern about how he will acclimate to NHL game speed again. However, he was a bright spot for much of the Bruins’ preseason, playing his way onto the roster, including pushing the veteran Reilly onto waivers. His play trailed off towards the end though, moving from a lock on the second or third pair to a roster battle, one he ultimately won, but a battle, nonetheless.

Jakub Zboril Boston Bruins
Jakub Zboril, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Zboril has a lighter cap hit than Reilly, $1.1 million, is four years younger, and likely possesses a more complete game. This should seem like a no-brainer then. Zboril stays in Boston. Not so fast though. Zboril has the highest upside to the Bruins, but he also has the highest upside to other teams, meaning he could be moved for a better return that would continue to help the organization in the years to come. By bringing back a mid-round draft pick along with a prospect, they could start the slow process of digging out from their current position at the bottom of the NHL’s prospect rankings. While Reilly and Clifton would be waiver selections for other teams, with a chance to improve their stock, Zboril has youth and promise to bet on, meaning the Bruins could turn him into multiple assets in a potential trade.

What the Bruins Should Do

There you have it. Three names that could be moved to accommodate Grzelcyk returning from his shoulder injury. The question now becomes, who makes way? I am going to stick with the consensus pick and say Reilly should be moved. He has the most similar game to Grzelcyk, albeit at a lower level, so he would become redundant when No. 48 returns to the ice. I would love him to play his way into a trade during the remaining weeks that Grzelcyk is rehabbing, but NHL general managers are often too smart to fall for this trick.

Related: Boston Bruins 2022-23 Training Camp Battles: Defensemen

I wouldn’t stop there though. I would also see if any team would take on Clifton. Sure, it is great having a right-shot seventh defenseman, but Zboril can play that role better than him and provide more to the team. Stralman is also a righty who could take some games off, likely against better skating teams where he may prove overmatched. This second move also looks towards the future as before long Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy will be returning from their own offseason surgeries and the Bruins will have even more decisions to make about their roster moving forward.

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