It might be easy to forget now, but it wasn’t that long ago that we were wondering if the Bruins were going to go out and add a defenseman at the trade deadline.
The conversation was understandable at the time. While the Bruins’ top five defensemen -- Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug, Brandon Carlo and Matt Grzelcyk -- were pretty well set in stone, there were questions about how they were rounding out that group.
Jeremy Lauzon was still a bit of an unproven commodity, and John Moore and Connor Clifton had been battling injuries throughout the season. So with some uncertainty there, and knowing how important depth is in the playoffs given the likelihood of injuries at some point, the Bruins may have wanted a little bit more security.
But while the Bruins did make a couple moves to add Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie up front, they wound up standing pat on the blue line.
As it turns out, the Bruins now look to be in really good shape on the back end. Lauzon made the most of the opportunity he was getting before the pause and is now a player the Bruins really like in that sixth D spot next to Grzelcyk.
Moore and Clifton, meanwhile, were able to get completely healthy during the layoff and are now both pushing Lauzon and providing depth in case someone goes down, which is of course now even more likely given the possibility of positive COVID-19 tests or testing delays or inconclusive tests (and it's worth noting that McAvoy was "unfit to participate" in Monday's practice).
“We’ve got eight guys who can play in the league,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said last week.
He’s right. While Cassidy says he hasn’t made any final lineup decisions yet, he has suggested that Lauzon is on the inside track to start alongside Grzelcyk based on what he was giving the Bruins before the pause.
“At the end of the day we’ll play our six best, but Lauzy went in there, played right, gave us an element of size, grit, some abrasiveness that we were lacking at the time when he went in,” Cassidy said. “So good timing for him, and he took advantage of a situation and played to his strengths. We like what he’s done.”
What he’s done won’t jump out at you from an individual numbers standpoint: 19 games, one goal, one assist, 20 shots on goal, 15:25 time on ice. But offense isn’t really his game anyway. Defense and physicality is his game, and that proved to be a nice complement to Grzelcyk as it freed up the smooth-skating puck-mover to get forward more. He’s also more comfortable playing on the right side than fellow left shots Grzelcyk and Moore, which has been a plus.
The results, while still a fairly small sample, were very good. In 195 minutes of 5-on-5 time together, Grzelcyk and Lauzon were on the ice for nine goals for and just three against. Their expected goals-for percentage of 66.1% was the best mark of any Bruins defense pair that played more than 50 minutes together this season.
“We liked the way it ended with Grizz and Lauzon,” Cassidy said. “Going back, part of that was we felt like need more bite in the lineup, and Lauzy’s a bigger man who gives us that, was willing to give us that. It worked out for us. We seemed to turn the page a little bit as a team, and he was in the lineup.”
If there’s one question with Lauzon, it’s how he’ll perform in his first NHL playoff action. The veteran Moore has 48 NHL playoff games under his belt and Clifton played in 18 games during the Bruins’ Stanley Cup Final run last year, so Cassidy shouldn’t have much hesitation turning to one of them if Lauzon struggles.
The Bruins coach doesn’t foresee that being an issue, though.
“I think he’ll be fine,” Cassidy said. “He’s a good kid, works hard, stays in the moment. I don’t think he’s one of those guys who’s going to overthink it.”
Another element that has helped shore up the bottom of the Bruins’ defense has been the leadership that has emerged within this small group. Everyone knows Chara is the go-to leader for the defensive corps and the team overall, and Krug is a clear team leader despite not wearing a letter as well, but Cassidy says he has been impressed with the way Grzelcyk has stepped up this season and taken charge on the third pairing.
“I like the fact that he’s become more of a leader on his pair,” Cassidy said of Grzelcyk. “Obviously he has to be with Lauzon, but I think he would be even if Johnny Moore was there or Cliffy. Take-charge type of guy. Obviously that has to do with confidence, more of a comfort level probably in the league and in the dressing room. He’s become one of those guys you don’t have to worry a lot about. He’s always well prepared.”
There’s also Moore, who has been used to having a more regular top-six role throughout his career rather than fighting for playing time as a seventh D. Other veterans could get frustrated in that situation and make things uncomfortable for their coaches and teammates, but that’s not how Moore is wired. Cassidy says he’s been nothing but a great teammate no matter what’s asked of him.
“He’s a true professional,” Cassidy said of Moore. “…Johnny’s certainly a guy we trust. We know he can play in the league, play well, has been to the Stanley Cup Final with the Rangers as well as the Bruins. He’s 100 percent healthy. He’s playing and practicing like he wants to be in the lineup, and he may very well be.
“I’m grateful to have a guy like that, where you tell him he’s not playing, and he just wants an explanation, what does he need to do better to get in the lineup. He never pouts. Terrific teammate, terrific person. I know he’s going to play for us. I just can’t get guarantee that it’s going to be in the opening night, Game 1 lineup.”
The Bruins certainly have some questions up front right now, especially with David Pastrnak and Ondrej Kase now into their second week of being "unfit to participate," but at least they can still feel good about their defensive depth and know they’re better equipped to overcome an injury or COVID-related absence there than pretty much any other team.