A lot has been made of the Bruins’ offensive struggles so far this season, and understandably so. They have scored zero five-on-five goals and just three goals total through three games. It’s a hard problem to ignore.
But just as Joe Biden preached a message of hope on Wednesday, let’s offer some reason for optimism here.
Remember all those questions we had about the Bruins’ defense going into the season? Well, the early returns have been encouraging, and it’s looking like these Bruins just might be a pretty good defensive team after all.
The Bruins have allowed five goals in three games -- and just four in regulation -- which is tied for the second-fewest in the NHL so far. They’re giving up the second-fewest shots on goal per game (23.3). They’re fourth in shot attempts allowed at five-on-five (42.3 per 60 minutes). They’re a perfect 13-for-13 on the penalty kill, too, and actually a plus-1 while playing four-on-five since they’ve scored a shorthanded goal.
Yes, it’s early. Yes, the Devils and Islanders aren’t the most dynamic offensive teams in the NHL. Yes, they’ll be tested more in these next two games against the Flyers.
But early is when we expected the Bruins’ new-look defense to struggle the most. They lost Torey Krug. They lost Zdeno Chara. They didn’t sign or trade for any replacements.
Was Matt Grzelcyk ready to be a top two or three defenseman? Was Jeremy Lauzon ready for a bigger role? Was Jakub Zboril, already written off as a bust by some, actually ready for a regular NHL role? Would Kevan Miller be able to contribute anything after missing the last 20 months?
So far, you’d have to say it’s a “yes” across the board. Grzelcyk played 23:10 per game in the first two games before being limited to 13:25 on Monday due to an upper body injury, which fortunately wasn’t serious and shouldn’t force him to miss any time. He’s been humming along with a 65% expected goals-for percentage and has looked fine in the Krug role of power-play quarterback, although the unit as a whole has been a little inconsistent since scoring twice in the opener.
Lauzon has made the jump from 15 minutes per game last season to 20 this year and, after some early struggles in Game 1, has started to settle in nicely on the top pairing with McAvoy and complement the Bruins’ undisputed No. 1 defenseman well. He has also taken over Chara’s role as a top penalty-killer, leading the team with 4:39 of shorthanded time on ice per game. Oh, and did I mention the PK hasn’t given up a goal yet?
Zboril, whose grip on a top-six role may have been the most tenuous going into the season, has shown that he belongs, that he is ready to play in the NHL, and that he shouldn’t be written off just yet. His skating and puck-moving has been a good fit in the Bruins’ new breakout system, especially playing next to a less mobile player in Miller.
Speaking of Miller, he’s been the clear No. 6 D playing 17:07 per game, 1:40 less than any other defenseman. Corsi and expected goals-for tell us he’s also been the least effective in terms of driving possession and scoring chances. That said, he’s brought some valuable toughness and physicality and a veteran presence that has helped set a tone for the younger blue-liners. Along with Lauzon and Carlo, he has been a key part of the PK too.
While the forward group has been hit with a couple early injuries, shuffled around, and struggled to find chemistry or score goals, the six defensemen have surprisingly been a constant. The Bruins have rolled with the same group and same pairings in all three games, and they have by and large gotten the job done. Combined with great goaltending from Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, the defense has been able to keep the Bruins in games while the offense tries to find its footing.
It hasn’t been perfect. Coach Bruce Cassidy noted on Wednesday that they have gotten beat in transition a few times due to being caught out of position. And of course, the defensemen have to be part of the solution offensively too, specifically by getting more shots through for tips and rebounds.
But they haven’t given up a lot in the D zone. Their breakouts have been pretty clean. There haven’t been many turnovers.
All things considered, the defense has been better than expected, and it might be time to start shifting the conversation from “Will it be a weakness?” to “Can it be a strength?”