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The Bruins Took A Bet On Their Young Defensemen — And Had To Scramble When It Didn’t Work Out

When the Boston Bruins let longtime captain Zdeno Chára walk to a division rival in free agency, the team touted its young defensemen. For Jérémy Lauzon and Jakub Zbořil to develop, Boston’s front office seemed to argue, there simply was not enough room for the now-44-year-old Chára.

An entire condensed-schedule season later, and the numbers don’t make a strong argument for those defensemen to continue to get extended ice time. The trade-deadline pickup of Mike Reilly was part of the larger message: The Bruins intended to make a run, and to do so, they couldn’t rely only on the young defenders. 

With the Bruins and Chára’s Washington Capitals tied at one game apiece in their first-round matchup, the play of those young blueliners — and how Boston chooses to deploy them — could make all the difference in the team’s pursuit of the Stanley Cup. So as this series ramps up, we wanted to ask: How has the Bruins’ choice of Lauzon and Zbořil over Chára worked out, and was it the right move?

From a purely statistical perspective, the Bruins defense isn’t exactly struggling, and even boasts some of the best metrics in the league. According to Natural Stat Trick, Brandon Carlo, Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk all rank in the top 10 in Corsi For percentage among defensemen with at least 400 minutes played 5-on-5. They’re three of the most elite top-halves of a defense in the NHL. But the top of the blue line isn’t where the Bruins have struggled, and that’s not where Chára would have seen time anyway. 

Chára has had a productive season on the third pairing with the physical Capitals. His 27.25 expected goals for at 5-on-5 ranked 106th among the league’s regular defensemen, more than 40 spots ahead of Lauzon and Zbořil. Chára started 40.68 percent of his starts in the offensive zone, the 31st lowest percentage in the league among defensemen with at least 400 minutes. He’s been heavily relied upon as a defender in tight situations. 

Compare that with Zbořil, who has seen 61.58 percent of his starts come in the offensive zone — tied for the 20th lowest defensive zone start percentage among regular defensemen.

Zbořil was the first of the Bruins’ three consecutive selections during the now-infamous first round of the 2015 draft. That’s the one where they skipped over Mathew Barzal, Kyle Connor, Thomas Chabot and Travis Konecny, among others. They ended up with forward Jake DeBrusk — who has faced struggles of his own this season — forward Zach Senyshyn and Zbořil. Senyshyn, despite limited success in the AHL, hasn’t made the leap. With Zbořil, it felt like the Bruins wanted to give the first rounder every chance, placing him in situations to succeed with offensive zone starts and letting him play through his struggles. 

And for most of this season, Lauzon was paired with McAvoy, a Norris Trophy candidate. When Lauzon was on any other pair, though, his numbers suffered dramatically. McAvoy-Lauzon ranked 90th among qualified defensive pairings with a 56.79 Corsi For percentage over more than 322 minutes in 37 games. In Lauzon’s 118 minutes with Connor Clifton, his next most common partner, that Corsi For percentage was only 47.69, tied for 346th in the league.

McAvoy, who has separated himself as one of the best defensemen in the league, is going to make it easier for whomever he is paired with. His expected goals for per 60 minutes relative to his teammates, per Evolving Hockey, is 0.34, compared to Zbořil at -0.13 and Lauzon at -0.08. (Chára, conversely, rates at -0.02 expected goals for per 60 relative to his teammates. Take into consideration the zone start differences, and Zbořil and Lauzon should project higher with their much higher offensive zone start percentages.)

To be fair, the Bruins defense dealt with a plethora of injuries this season, from Kevan Miller’s ongoing injury saga and Carlo’s two stints away to a several-game stretch without McAvoy and Grzelcyk being banged up at various points. Factor in letting Torey Krug walk to St. Louis, and the Bruins had a somewhat predictable predicament. Before they added Reilly from Ottawa, they were so short-handed that they needed to claim 6-foot-6 Jarred Tinordi off waivers from Nashville.

A big, left-handed defenseman? That sounds familiar.

Hypothetically, if the Bruins were so eager to play the young defensemen, they could have retained Chára and let Miller walk; instead, they used a commitment to Lauzon and Zbořil as their reasoning to let Chára go, and midway through the season needed to add other defensemen to fill in the depth.

The addition of Reilly at the trade deadline changed the entire dynamic of the defense, adding depth the Bruins lacked all year. Some of that was because of the injuries, but some was simply current players — Zbořil especially — struggling in expanded roles.

Chára and Reilly are different players. If Chára had stayed, perhaps the Bruins still would have tried to make room for Reilly at his $1.5 million cap hit and the offensive ability they lacked outside of Grzelcyk. Tinordi, though, would almost certainly not have been on their radar.

Consider the cap hit it would have taken to retain Chára: $795,000. Then look at who the Bruins did choose to re-sign. Miller’s cap hit is $1.25 million, and he has been relatively low impact. Miller is a right-handed shot, so it’s not a perfect comparison. But Boston did choose to invest in a player who has dealt with four surgeries in the past three seasons and has continued to be far from a sure thing to stay in the lineup.

The idea that Chára would have had to take a big step back was also unrealistic. Chára has played 30.39 percent of the Capitals’ time on ice this season; last season with the Bruins, he played 35.99 percent. That isn’t a drastic decrease — just three minutes per game. 

Since Reilly joined the team, Zbořil has played over 18 minutes just once in  five games overall. Reilly is averaging around three minutes more per game in Boston than he did in Ottawa.

The Bruins said they let their captain go in order to play players like Zbořil. Instead, when they had a chance to improve their roster, they jumped at it; the dedication to their young defenseman went only as far as the gamble could take them.

Young players in new roles, especially defensemen, are going to have growing pains. In perhaps the strangest year ever in the NHL, there has to be some sort of a long leash for that, or at the least compassionate expectations. But the Bruins’ decision to choose their young defensemen over Chára remains puzzling. In this series against the Capitals, we’ll all get a first-hand look at what could have been, and what is.

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