Although it is still at least a couple weeks away, the return of Adam McQuaid to the Boston Bruins lineup will pose another interesting dilemma for head coach Bruce Cassidy.
Who will McQuaid replace on the B’s defensive core?
It’s pretty clear that it won’t be Zdeno Chara or Charlie McAvoy. Big Z is the captain and still one of the best defensive players in the league, while McAvoy is playing at an All-Star level in his first full season in the NHL. Kevan Miller is staying as well, as the second-pairing defenseman brings the physical play every night, has proven that he is more than willing to throw the gloves down when needed, and has chipped in with five assists while playing all but one game this season.
One would think that the obvious choice would be rookie Matt Grzelcyk, but his strong play in the last eight games should keep him in the Bruins roster for the foreseeable future. The 23-year-old Massachusetts native has one goal and two assists in his last eight contests. Grzelcyk is averaging nearly 17 minutes of ice time in the last three games, and had five shot attempts (one SOG) in Boston’s 3-1 win over the Islanders on Saturday night.
Cassidy admitted that Grzelcyk is pushing fellow left-shot defenseman Torey Krug for ice time and opportunities. Without his offensive prowess, Krug would likely be spending some time looking down from the rafters when McQuaid returns from his broken fibula. Krug has the worst plus/minus rating on the entire Bruins roster (-8), and has made several glaring miscues that yielded goals throughout the season. But he is fourth on the B’s in points with 16 (4 G, 12 A) and tied for third in assists with Brad Marchand, and has cleaned up some of his mistakes on the back end during Boston’s 8-2-0 run that has quickly moved them up the Atlantic Division standings.
With those five defensemen seemingly playing well enough to warrant staying in the lineup, it is time for Brandon Carlo to either step up or sit down.
Now there’s no denying that Carlo is talented, still extremely young, and is one of the cornerstones that the Bruins are trying to build around. But his game has taken a step back this season, and while there haven’t been many huge and untimely mistakes from the 21-year-old, there also haven’t been a lot of games where he’s been noticed on the ice. He has just one assist and a -2 rating in his last 13 games, while his ice time has varied from a season-high 25:41 on December 2nd vs. the Flyers to just 13:50 two nights later against the Predators.
But the biggest stat that could point to Carlo sitting when McQuaid returns is hits. Carlo has just 29 hits in 27 games this season, which is fourth among the Bruins defensemen and ninth overall. For comparison, David Backes – who has been tremendous since having a part of his colon removed – has two more hits in 17 fewer games than Carlo.
Carlo should be looking to throw the body around more often than he has, especially since his defensive partner Torey Krug has a smaller frame. There should be a physical presence on every line, and Carlo has the build (6’5”, 210 lbs) to send a message more frequently. He could get away with averaging just over one hit per game last season being paired with the physical force that is Zdeno Chara, but not with the slight Krug by his side.
The next couple weeks will be pivotal for both Carlo and the rest of the Bruins defense. Krug, Grzelcyk, and Carlo need to step up their games in order to make the decision on who sits, and maybe how long it actually takes for McQuaid to return, an even more difficult one than it already is.
Let’s just all pray that an injury doesn’t turn this into a non-issue, because we can all agree the Bruins have dealt with more than enough of those this season.