Bruins’ D competition takes a turn in rough loss to Chicago


When it comes to the competition for playing time on the Bruins’ blue line, the assumption many have been making is that if everyone’s healthy, Matt Grzelcyk would be the odd man out come playoffs, and Derek Forbort and Connor Clifton would remain together on the third pairing.

A night like Tuesday makes you question that plan. Forbort and Clifton weren’t the only Bruins who were off in an ugly 6-3 loss to the lowly Chicago Blackhawks -- there was plenty of blame to go around -- but it was an especially rough night for the two of them.

Is it time to be concerned about the Bruins?

Forbort and Clifton were both a minus-3, and that pairing was in the direct line of responsibility on all three of those 5-on-5 goals against. Clifton was also on the ice for a Chicago power-play goal, and appeared to be the one who lost track of goal-scorer Taylor Raddysh as he snuck behind the defense.

The Blackhawks’ first goal began with a miscommunication between Clifton and David Pastrnak in the offensive zone. MacKenzie Entwistle stole the puck and raced the other way with Clifton in pursuit, but then Clifton let up, seemingly expecting Entwistle to stay to the outside. Instead, Entwistle charged right past him to the net and slid a one-handed shot past Linus Ullmark (who probably should have done better, in fairness).

On the second, it was Forbort losing his battles. Forbort mishandled the puck behind the net, lost a board battle while trying to recover it, and then failed to box out goal-scorer Joey Anderson at the front. Forbort got victimized again on Chicago’s fourth goal, watching Boris Katchouk turn him inside-out off the rush before ripping a shot past Ullmark.

That’s not exactly a Murderers’ Row of offensive talent the Bruins’ third pairing got torched by. Entwistle, Anderson and Katchouk had a grand total of eight goals this season before Tuesday night.

The advanced stats weren’t any friendlier to Forbort and Clifton. During the 10:15 that they were on the ice at 5-on-5, the Bruins got out-attempted 14-6, outshot 10-5, and had an expected goals share of just 24.7%. They were on the ice for 10 high-danger chances against, on a night when the Bruins gave up just 16 total.

This may have been the worst game of the season for the Forbort-Clifton pairing, but it wasn’t a total one-off. In the nine games since Boston acquired Dmitry Orlov, Forbort and Clifton have been together for five of them (with the D rotation taking each of them out for a pair of games). Simply put, they haven’t been nearly good enough.

In their 56 5-on-5 minutes during that time, the Bruins have been outscored 6-2 with a Corsi-for percentage of 33.0% and an expected goals share of 28.6%. No other Bruins D pair has been on the ice for more than three goals against during that time. Of the nine other combos that have played at least 15 minutes together, eight have at least broken even in goal differential. The only other one that hasn’t was a Forbort-Orlov pairing that was together for Orlov’s first game as a Bruin and got outscored 1-0.

We know what the arguments are for keeping Forbort and/or Clifton in the lineup over Grzelcyk. Forbort is a huge part of the penalty kill, and the numbers bear out that the PK has been worse in games he’s missed this season (although we should note that Forbort was on the ice for two Detroit power-play goals on Sunday). Clifton helps set the tone physically with his team-leading 178 hits.

Those arguments remain valid, but they only work if those guys are also holding their own at 5-on-5. Most of this season, they have. Their advanced stats have always been the weakest on the Bruins’ D corps, and Forbort in particular is clearly their weakest 5-on-5 defenseman, but their goal differential has at least been in the positive.

But when the 5-on-5 play swings as far to the negative as it has recently, well, the calculation changes. 80% of NHL games are played at 5-on-5. A team with Stanley Cup aspirations can’t afford to have one of its D pairings -- even the third one -- not carrying its weight at even strength.

Grzelcyk, meanwhile, has been playing pretty well recently, especially when paired with Charlie McAvoy. Over their last five games together, the Bruins have outscored opponents 3-1 during their 5-on-5 shifts with 67.4% of shot attempts and 66.3% of expected goals.

Part of the argument against Grzelcyk in the playing time competition with Forbort and Clifton is that he isn’t really a natural fit on the third pairing with either Forbort or Clifton. He has had minimal time there. When he most recently started a game on the third pairing with Clifton on Saturday, Jim Montgomery split them up just 10 minutes into the game and put Grzelcyk back with McAvoy.

But it isn’t necessarily a 1-for-1 substitution. Montgomery could opt to keep Grzelcyk with McAvoy and go with a lineup that looks something like this, which really features three top-four pairings and no true third pairing:

Matt Grzelcyk - Charlie McAvoy
Dmitry Orlov - Brandon Carlo
Hampus Lindholm - Connor Clifton

Lindholm and Clifton were excellent together earlier this season (17-4 goal differential, 60.7% expected goals), so there’s familiarity there. Grzelcyk and Orlov could easily be flipped if needed, as Grzelcyk has also been very good with Carlo this season (11-4 goal differential, 58.3% expected goals). No other team can roll out a 5-on-5 D lineup with this kind of depth and balance.

Of course, it all circles back to the same question: Would the penalty kill hold up without Forbort? Everyone except Grzelcyk has been a part of the PK this season, so it’s not like the Bruins would lack PK experience. But it’s the sheer number of PK minutes that Forbort eats (team-high 3:06 per game) and pucks he is willing to eat (team-high 27 blocks on the PK this season) that make him valuable, as that lessens the dirty work the Bruins need their big guns to do and reduces the number of one-timers a McAvoy, Lindholm or Orlov needs to stand in front of.

Montgomery still has time to tinker. Forbort and Clifton still have time to get back on track at 5-on-5. There is always the possibility that someone gets hurt between now and Game 1 of the playoffs and this all becomes moot anyways.

But in the here and now, Forbort and Clifton are having a tough go of it, and it may not be as safe to assume that they’re playoff lineup locks as it once was.

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