Bruins Have Lingering Questions About Their Young Defense

The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs are in full swing as the Boston Bruins battle against the New York Islanders with hopes to advance to the Semifinals. As is often the case with playoff games, the Bruins’ performances so far have given us a chance to see which areas of the lineup are able to sustain their success against tougher opponents and which ones get exposed. The defensive core, in particular, came with a lot of question marks this season: who will fill the shoes of Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug? Who can play on the third pairing? How much depth does the defensive group have as a whole?

These questions have come to the forefront once again in the Bruins’ second-round series. A mistake in overtime by 24-year-old Jeremy Lauzon led directly to the team’s Game 2 loss, highlighting the poor play of the third pairing. The threat of losing any defensemen to injury – like Brandon Carlo, who may have suffered a concussion-related injury in Game 3 – raises the question of who can step in. Does this group have what it takes to make it throughout a potentially long postseason run against the best teams in the league?

Jeremy Lauzon, Ryan Callahan
Boston Bruins’ Jeremy Lauzon defends against former Tampa Bay Lightning player Ryan Callahan (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Undoubtedly, several young players have stepped up despite their inexperience and done an impressive job throughout the regular season. The team has hardly felt the effects of losing Chara and Krug last offseason, and with a much-improved forward lineup, they can rely a little less on shutdown defense. However, the future holds a lot of uncertainty for this group, with the Seattle Expansion Draft looming and more than a few decisions to be made for who will stay on the roster. These lingering issues will affect not just the playoffs but beyond as well.

Where the Defense Is at Now

The youth movement on the Bruins’ blueline has been highly successful for the top-4, with players like Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, and Carlo becoming the core pieces of this group for what will be many years to come. However, the bottom pairing has seen much less consistency, taking on an identity that more closely resembles spare parts rather than something that will be a part of the defense’s future. Several different players have been rotated in and out of these positions, most of which are young defensemen looking to secure a full-time NHL roster spot.

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

These defensemen in question are usually Connor Clifton, Lauzon, and Jakub Zboril. All three of them started as fringe NHL players before slowly getting more and more time in the lineup; however, none of them could truly take and keep that role on the third pairing. With the only other competition being Kevan Miller and Jarred Tinordi, why haven’t any of these up-and-coming players secured a full-time roster spot yet?

It’s a question that will continue to nag the team throughout the rest of their postseason run as Bruce Cassidy tries to find the most effective third pairing combination for each game. However, there is some hope for a clearer picture in the near future, based on what we’ve seen in the last few games; Lauzon, after making such a costly mistake in overtime, showed a capacity for resilience with a good bounce-back performance in Game 3, while Clifton has seemed to hit a new gear in the playoffs with his trademark “Cliffy Hockey” style of play.

For the rest of this season, the Bruins have no choice but to roll with players like Lauzon, Clifton, and possibly Zboril, Tinordi, or Miller on their blueline in the hunt for the Cup. It’s not unprecedented for a team to still have question marks in their roster now, and even inconsistent players can get hot just in time for a successful playoff campaign. If they can continue to keep opposing teams off the scoresheet and stay focused on the ice, the third pairing will have the opportunity to silence the concerns surrounding them and become a significant part of the Bruins’ success.

What the Future Holds

The Seattle Expansion Draft could shake up the outlook of this defensive group, particularly if a player like Clifton or Lauzon is selected. Even after, however, there’s still work to be done in evaluating the team’s plans for the future. A player like Urho Vaakanainen, who is the Bruins’ top prospect on defense, is someone that the Bruins will want to step in and become a full-time NHL player alongside McAvoy, Grzelcyk, and Carlo. However, Vaakanainen may still not be truly ready to take his place in the NHL, which leaves any improvements for the bottom defensive pairing relatively stagnant for the next year or two. In the same boat is Jack Ahcan, a player who could someday find a full-time roster spot but doesn’t look close enough to reach an NHL-caliber level of play.

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In the meantime, management has to look critically at what players they want to fill the rest of the spots on their blueline. Neither Miller nor Tinordi have proven able to sustain a presence in the lineup and likely won’t get any better with age, which leaves the option open for one of the young players. However, the team must choose: are these players going to be a part of the future, and if not, where else will the future come from?

Jakub Zboril Boston Bruins
Jakub Zboril, Boston Bruins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Bruins’ number one priority right now is winning the Stanley Cup in 2021. Still, some of the issues they are facing currently in their second-round series highlight a big question mark that the organization will have to look closely at, both for now and for the future. The youth of their defense makes it hard to predict what will happen in this postseason, and what we see now could have a big impact on which players find a permanent home in the lineup. As the Bruins continue their push for the Cup, we will hopefully get a clearer picture of the blueline and have some lingering questions answered.

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