The Boston Bruins have been one of the best teams in the National Hockey League so far this season. Through 14 games, they have put up a record of 10-2-2. Boston’s 22 points are good for the second in the league. The Bruins only trail the Canadian division leader Toronto Maple Leafs, who have accumulated 26 points in 17 games.
Recent history would show this Bruins start should not come as much as a surprise. Since Bruce Cassidy took over as head coach in 2017, Boston has been one of the best teams in the league. They have made the playoffs each of the last four seasons. They have won at least one playoff round in three consecutive campaigns. Not to mention, the Bruins came within a game of winning the Stanley Cup in 2019. How impressive could their start be?
Boston’s successful beginning is significant for a couple of reasons, the first being the roster, which was reshaped with the departure of two critical defensemen during the off-season.
Torey Krug was a critical part of Boston’s offense from the blue-line. Since 2014, his first full season in the league, Krug has amassed 344 points. That ranks him eighth among NHL defensemen over that span. He was a brilliant power play quarterback that contributed to one of the best five on four offenses in the league.
When he signed a seven-year contract with the St. Louis Blues, Boston needed to replace Krug’s 20 minutes of ice time per game. That is no easy task.
To make matters even worse for the Bruins, Zdeno Chara signed with the Washington Capitals, ending his 14-year run as Boston’s captain. During his time wearing the Spoked-B, he was one of the best shutdown defensemen in the league. He helped lead Boston to a Stanley Cup Finals victory in 2011 and two more appearances in 2013 and 2019.
Not to mention, Chara brought incredible intangibles of leadership, work ethic and professionalism into the locker room. It is impossible to supplant someone of Chara’s caliber.
The Bruins’ roster still had a great goaltending tandem of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. Boston also boasted high-end forward talent with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, but its defensive unit was a question mark.
Subjectively, the only established Bruins’ defenseman over 30 years old was Kevan Miller, who missed the entire 2020 season due to a knee injury. The rest of the core — Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk, Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril — all came into this year with five or fewer NHL seasons under their belts.
It was unclear if Lauzon and Zboril could even play at this level. Lauzon had only previously suited up for 35 games with the Bruins, while Zboril had only appeared in two. On top of that, McAvoy, Carlo and Grzelcyk were about to see a significant increase in ice time and responsibilities.
To this point in the year, the defense has exceeded expectations.
McAvoy is playing the best hockey of his career. No longer deferring to Chara, he is running Boston’s blue-line. He willingly throws his body around when appropriate, shows off his skating skills consistently and makes great decisions with the puck.
He is also flourishing offensively, racking up 11 points in 14 games, including a stretch of eight straight games with a point. He is legitimately in the conversation for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman.
Carlo and Miller are very good when it comes to stymying opponent scoring chances. Both also seem to be more confident in their skating, as well.
Lauzon and Zboril have really come along well. While both are still learning what it takes to play each game at this level, it is clear they both belong in the league. Lauzon has a good combination of skating ability mixed with just the right amount of nastiness. Zboril is gaining confidence and looks comfortable after every shift.
The one downside to this unit so far has been Grzelcyk’s inability to stay on the ice. Stepping up from his bottom-pairing role last year, he was going to be more of a target for opponents. So far, Grzelcyk has played just six games total, and only one in February. While this is not a major concern at the moment, it will be worth noting how Grzelcyk’s body holds up playing tougher minutes.
To this point, the Bruins have done a fantastic job replacing the 40 minutes of ice time per game Chara and Krug left behind. The defensemen who have been a part of Cassidy’s system are doing well, for the most part. We will learn even more about these players as the season goes along, especially once the playoffs get underway.