The Matt Grzelcyk-Charlie McAvoy combination is one of the most efficient defensive pairings in hockey. In an ideal world, the Boston Bruins wouldn’t need to break them up.
But sometimes, it might make more sense for Grzelcyk to play on a lower pairing, and that is among the reasons the Bruins are so hellbent on trying Derek Forbort with McAvoy.
Forbort, a 2010 first-round pick, is not necessarily the type of blueliner you would peg as a bona fide top-pairing defenseman. He is a big body who has fair enough puck-moving ability for a player of his size, but he most certainly falls under the stay-at-home defenseman umbrella.
The Forbort-McAvoy experiment always seemed like something for down the road, and that the former would just start with someone like Connor Clifton. But that hasn’t been the case so far in training camp, as he’s been almost exclusively with McAvoy.
Naturally, Forbort has faced questions about playing with a Norris hopeful.
“He does a really good job of communicating. He’s such a good player that he’s easy to play with,” Forbort said Monday. “My whole career I’ve kind of been with guys like him. Doughty, and then (Neal) Pionk last year. Those three all kind of play very similar to each other. I know my role in that pairing.”
The mentioning of defensive partners is important, and probably a big thing to keep in mind as the Bruins tinker with defensive pairings. It wasn’t just that Forbort would take the occasional shift with Doughty. He was almost always with Doughty — who is one of the defensemen McAvoy has said he modeled his game after — during his time in Los Angeles.
From the time he became a full-time NHL player in 2016 through the 2018-19 season, Forbort played over 4,226 minutes for the Kings (all numbers via Natural Stat Trick). He spent 3,187 of those minutes, or roughly 75%, with Doughty, who finished second in Norris Trophy voting in 2017-18.
Across those three seasons, the Forbort-Doughty combo had a 49.62% Corsi For. That’s not a bad number for a top pairing getting started in all three zones, often against opposing teams’ best lines. Make no mistake, Doughty was carrying that pairing, but not so much to the level that Forbort was sandbagging him.
Los Angeles clearly trusted Forbort with its top dogs no matter what. When he wasn’t playing with Doughty, the next D-man Forbort had the most time on ice with was Alec Martinez. In his brief time with the Calgary Flames, Forbort played almost exclusively with Erik Gustafsson, an offensively-minded defenseman whose style of play naturally left Forbort to put out a ton of fires. That combo left a lot to be desired.
In his one season with Winnipeg, Forbort was mostly with Pionk, and they had a Corsi For of 50.54%, though their expected goals against were slightly higher (29.48) than expected goals for (28.61).
The overall point is this: Forbort has a lot of experience playing with legitimate top-pairing defensemen. He has figured out a way to support them adequately. As it related to the Bruins, that could free up Grzelcyk to get more favorable matchups as a third-pairing blueliner. Time will tell, but Forbort-McAvoy might be more sustainable than Grzelcyk-McAvoy, even if the ceiling of the pairing is a little more capped.
So, give it time. The Bruins might be onto something here. And knowing Bruce Cassidy, if it isn’t working then he’ll mix it up by Halloween.