The other day I had a chat with a friend. We wondered about about what the plan for the defense this season. With nine potential players between the NHL and AHL rosters and possibly a free agent signing in Zdeno Chara, the Bruins defense is at a crossroads: Do they commit to a youth rebuild on the fly and move on from Chara or do they re-sign him and adjust him to a lesser defensive role while using his skills to coach younger players?
Let’s talk about the prospects. Don Sweeney has made a bolder than expected move with his signing of Jakub Zboril to a two-year, one way deal which will pay him $700,000 for 2020-21 and $750,000 for 2021-22. Clearly, he expects Little Z to make the roster this season out of camp after having a much improved season in 2019-20, albeit one that was cut short due to the pandemic.
Great two-way shift from Jakub Zboril, No. 38 in white, playing in March before the shutdown. Zboril finished as PVD’s best defender and played a ton this game. Good retrieval, good patience and even better outlet pass. Great keep at the line and then good defense low. #NHLBruins pic.twitter.com/r4T0XNw1O9
— Bruins Network (@BruinsNetwork) October 16, 2020
The knock on Zboril has been inconsistency, which is the bane of all young, talented players. When Zboril is on and engaged, he shines. Otherwise he becomes invisible or worse, painful to watch. He’s been improving the past two seasons, so that’s a good sign. Last training camp, he was among the last in roster cuts, largely because his exempt status had run out and he could be claimed on waivers when sent down to Providence. Being skeptical, I am suspicious of players who have good years during their contract year. I admit this came from watching Reilly Smith, who can be a solid 20+ goal scorer but who flailed when playing with two of the best players on the Bruins, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. With Zboril I’ll try to tame my watchful eye while accepting that a first year NHL player will make bunched of mistakes.
Urho Vaakanainen is also a left shot defenseman. Last season he was brought up for 5 games. So far he doesn’t have any NHL points but 7 games is a small game total to expect anything. He seemed to be developing well in the AHL.
Urho Vaakanainen, No. 5 in white, closes off the skating lane while using his positioning, frame to outwork this forward. In motion, Vaakanainen kicks the puck to his stick, peels off and leads the transition back up ice. He was playing very well before the shutdown. #NHLBruins pic.twitter.com/C8sOJNhG3t
— Bruins Network (@BruinsNetwork) October 18, 2020
However, there are rumors that the Bruins are looking to move him. This could be because there is a logjam in the LD pipeline and perhaps they would like a more veteran presence. These rumors are coming from Haggs and Murphy, so I wouldn’t place stock in them.
Don’t be surprised if top B’s defenseman prospect Urho Vaakanainen winds up getting moved in a deal by the Boston Bruins. Sources tell @BOSHockeyNow that “they’re trying to move him” to help upgrade their very young back end https://t.co/OTyhQ3qxUT
— Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) November 18, 2020
Regardless, it looks like either of these two guys could be battling for a roster spot.
Then there’s the newly signed Matt Grzelcyk. We know he’s a rostered player and an NHL veteran. where does he fit in? Last season, we saw Cassidy pair Grzelcyk up with his BU teammate, Charlie McAvoy in certain situation when he wanted to give Chara a break or was otherwise unavailable. This seemed to be a look at a future pairing and a glimpse at the past. The two certainly have chemistry but is this the top pairing that Cassidy wants? Moving Grizz up from the third pairing will solve the top pairing issue while allowing the bottom of the lineup to open up for a first year player (Zboril, Vaakanainen).
The right side of the defense seems to be all but set: Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Connor Clifton/ Jeremy Lauzon. Kevan Miller re-signed early in free agency, with a contract worth almost $2 million with bonuses. It seems doubtful that he’ll really factor in to the roster building as he has yet to take to the ice without further injury.
“They haven’t re-signed their Captain but made Kevan Miller’s body made of toothpicks a priority” pic.twitter.com/YJYCL9VeOD
— ETD51 (@ETD51) November 16, 2020
Then we come to Zdeno Chara. The 43 year-old Captain has continually expressed a desire to return to the Bruins for a 15th season. He feels he has more to give and not just in playing time. His desire to win another Stanley Cup hasn’t waned. The problem seems to be with accepting that his role may be different. Chara still tirelessly trains but age is catching up with him. Chara is not a top pairing option at this point in his career and that is something that he will have to accept. Could he be a second pair option? Maybe. Seeing him and Carlo as the shutdown pair is awesome but it might be more effective as a penalty kill option rather than 20 minutes a night. Cassidy likes having a stay-at-home guy paired with a puck mover and neither Chara or Carlo are puck movers. He might be best at lower minutes with a focus on the PK, whether that’s the second pairing or third.
At this point, the Bruins and Chara aren’t close to signing a deal. Apparently Chara is looking to see how the season is going to be structured before committing, which is understandable. Again there are rumors of teams being interested in Chara. Those teams all have one thing in common: none of those teams have cap space. So, I wouldn’t worry about other teams right now because every team is equally screwed due to the cap. So, it will be up to Chara if he re-signs.