With the Bruins having three days between games, we here at The Skate Podcast decided to do a mailbag episode, which you can listen to below. One of the questions was one the Bruins are going to have to answer in a little over a week: What happens with Mason Lohrei when Matt Grzelcyk returns?
Boston coach Jim Montgomery said on Wednesday that Grzelcyk is expected to return from his upper-body injury a week from Saturday, when the Bruins face the Rangers in New York on Nov. 25.
Someone will likely need to be sent down to Providence, not just because Grzelcyk’s return will give them eight defensemen, but also because they don’t have the cap space to keep 23 players on the active roster.
The Bruins have a couple options, but the decision really boils down to being about Lohrei. Has the 22-year-old rookie done enough to stick around and knock someone else out of the lineup? Or should he be sent back down to get more seasoning in Providence?
As noted on the pod, it might be a little premature to try to make this decision now. Even though Grzelcyk’s return is only a week away, the Bruins have four games between now and then. Lohrei might play in all of them. Given that he’s only played six games so far, four more could certainly swing the pendulum one way or the other.
If the decision had to be made now, though, my answer is that Lohrei would probably be sent down. Here’s why:
Lohrei has been pretty good. His potential is evident and exciting. He is a very good skater and passer. His ability to make plays in tight areas is impressive for someone who’s 6-foot-5. He can make things happen offensively and in transition. He has a goal, an assist and 10 shots on goal in six games. According to Natural Stat Trick, he leads all Bruins defensemen in individual scoring chances and rebounds created on a per-60-minute basis.
Defensively, there is work to do, though. Lohrei hasn’t been a defensive disaster by any means. Let’s not overstate this. But there have been some mistakes, be it in rush defense, in-zone coverage, or decision-making. An ill-advised pinch at the offensive blue line in Dallas last week landed him on the bench for much of the third period of that game.
On a per-60 basis, opponents are getting more scoring chances, more expected goals and more actual goals with Lohrei on the ice than any other Bruins defenseman. Of the nine Bruins defensemen who have played this season, he is the only one who has been on the ice for more 5-on-5 goals against (6) than for (5).
If Lohrei, a left shot, stays, he probably has to play with either Charlie McAvoy or Brandon Carlo if the Bruins are really going to get the best out of him. The problem there is that McAvoy has been better with Grzelcyk (52.8% expected goals-for with Grzelcyk, 37.2% with Lohrei) and Carlo has been better with Hampus Lindholm (56.2% xGF with Lindholm, 45.6% with Lohrei).
Putting Lohrei on the third pairing with Kevin Shattenkirk could be an option, but the early returns on that duo weren’t great in the couple games they were together. In their 26 minutes together, the Bruins got outshot 19-6 and outscored 2-0.
There is certainly an argument for just keeping Lohrei in and letting him work through his growing pains because his upside is so high. But he can work on what he needs to work on in Providence, too, and he can play in all situations there.
Lohrei has gotten minimal power-play and penalty-kill ice time in Boston. He projects as an all-situations player long-term, so playing in all situations in Providence could be a plus. The P-Bruins will also use him late in a game protecting a one-goal lead, whereas Montgomery might not trust him for those duties yet.
The other part of this is that none of the Bruins’ six opening-night defensemen have played themselves out of a lineup spot. Grzelcyk was playing pretty well before getting injured. Forbort, a weak link at 5-on-5 in the past, has been rock solid in heavy defensive-zone minutes this season. Among Boston’s D, he has been on the ice for the fewest goals, expected goals, shots and high-danger chances against on a per-60 basis. He also remains a key part of the league's best penalty kill. Shattenkirk has been a steady veteran who has done a good job getting shots to the net in the offensive zone, and benching him to keep everyone else in would mean moving a lefty to his off side.
Another option could be to keep Lohrei up, send Ian Mitchell down, and work out some sort of rotation on defense where Lohrei might not play every game, but he’s still playing at least half of them instead of sitting in the press box as a full-time seventh defenseman. Again, that might not be as beneficial as just playing every game in the AHL, though.
Sending Lohrei down, if it happens, shouldn’t be seen as any sort of indictment or disappointment. There’s no shame in needing more development time early in your first full season as a pro. He could easily be back in Boston later this season if things go well in Providence.
Of course, as we mentioned off the top, Lohrei could still force the Bruins’ hand over this next week if he plays well against some tougher opponents.