The biggest question regarding the Boston Bruins’ defense corps entering the 2021-22 NHL season might be Charlie McAvoy’s bank account.
McAvoy’s development has gone as planned, as he looks poised to anchor the Boston blue line for years. As he approaches the end of his rookie deal, the market is being set across the NHL, and it’s pretty clear he’s one of the next young D-men to get paid in a very big way.
Similar to the Bruins’ forward group entering the season, there doesn’t appear to be a ton of roster space up for grabs. However, it would be slightly disappointing if none of Boston’s up-and-coming blueliners didn’t at least make it a conversation entering the regular season.
Here’s a look at Boston’s defense situation as training camp and the exhibition slate begin in earnest.
The Lineup Regulars
Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk, Connor Clifton, Mike Reilly, Derek Forbort
McAvoy, as mentioned, is one of the best in the world at his position. Who skates with him on the top defense pairing certainly is among the true preseason unknowns. The combination with the highest ceiling is McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk. If both are at their best, it’s one of the best pairings in the NHL. However, Bruce Cassidy acknowledged it might be too heavy of an ask for Grzelcyk, which means newcomer Derek Forbort is likely the frontrunner to ride shotgun with McAvoy, at least to start the season. Forbort is a big body at 6-foot-4, although he has pretty solid two-way potential for someone his size. The hope has to be pairing him with an elite player like McAvoy can really unlock the talent that made him a first-round pick in 2010.
It will be interesting to see what Mike Reilly can do with a full season in the Boston system. He was fantastic upon being acquired from Ottawa at the trade deadline before seemingly hitting a wall down the stretch and into the playoffs. Pairing him with Brandon Carlo gives the B’s a solid duo that should perform well in each end, while the Grzelcyk-Connor Clifton combo rounds out the group with, again, plenty of potential.
One of the biggest challenges and keys to success this season for the Bruins and Cassidy’s staff is finding ways to ensure everyone plays to or near their ceiling. If they can, it’s a great group. If not, there might be some struggles keeping the puck out of the net.
The Lineup Bubble Players
John Moore, Jakub Zboril
Organizationally, the Bruins’ defense corps isn’t the deepest group, but they definitely can weather the storm if there’s an injury to anyone not named Charlie McAvoy.
Zboril certainly is the more interesting of these two, given his status as a former first-round pick. He played a career-high 42 games last season and largely held his own but also wasn’t overly impressive. It’s easy to forget he’s just 24 years old and still needs more time to bake before really taking the next step in his career. The problem, of course, is whether he can get enough NHL reps to help in that process. If and when someone goes down, though, he’ll get a call.
As for John Moore, take away the contract and you can do a whole lot worse than more than 500 games of NHL experience waiting in the wings. He’s seemingly healthy after dealing with a hip issue, too. He’s a solid depth piece.
The NHL-Ready Prospects
Urho Vaakanainen, Jack Ahcan, Brady Lyle
Vaakanainen is another high-drafted defenseman who is feeling the roster crunch of a left-heavy unit. And again, he’s another young player who just hasn’t had enough chances with the big club to a) prove his worth or b) go through that essential learning process for young defensemen. Such is life, however, when you’re part of an organization whose goal every season is to contend for a Stanley Cup.
Don’t let Ahcan’s size — or lack thereof — fool you: He has the physical tools to one day be a dependable player in the NHL. When the chance to do that on more than a limited sample will come remains to be seen.
Lyle might be one of the more intriguing players in the entire organization. The undrafted free agent has made the most of his professional debut, holding his own defensively in Providence while also contributing seven goals and seven assists in just 25 games. He was rewarded with a two-way contract and looks ready to get a shot at some point this season.
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This one is still down the road some, but Lohrei, a 2020 second-round draft pick has exceeded expectations and looks more and more like a steal each time he takes the ice. He’s off to Columbus where he’ll play for Ohio State this season, but his size and talent should have him on the fast track to the NHL.
For even more Bruins, tune into “Bruins: Back To Work” Monday on NESN at 5:30 p.m. ET. For the latest updates, view the NESN TV schedule here.