[The Hockey News Season Preview] 2016-2017 Season: Can the defense hold up? The Magic Eight Ball says “don’t hold your breath.” Last year’s Bruins were a bottom-half possession team and tied for second-worst in shots allowed. Zdeno Chara will be 40 before the campaign ends, and GM Don Sweeney made no additions over the summer. It’s baffling to consider how much trouble this team would be in defensively without responsible forwards such as Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.  

Well, well, well. What was supposed to be the Bruins achilles heel this season turned out to be a pretty solid group after all. 

With no huge addition last summer GM Don Sweeney never landed that elusive right shot puck moving defenseman he was always rumored to be after. No Shattenkirk, no Trouba, nothing.  Even here at BostonPucks.com we were wondering where this player was in the off season when we wrote Where Is This Defenseman Sweeney Was Talking About?.

It never happened.

And looking back at this season, although it would have been nice, it really didn’t have to happen. The defense improved immensely with little personnel change. You actually have to give former coach Claude Julien some credit for that. But a lot of it might fall on Bruce Cassidy who was running the defense prior taking over as interim head coach in February with 27 games left in what was trending towards being a dying season.

The season ended up being saved. And the Bruins improved to 9th in team defense by allowing 209 goals. To put the improvement into perspective, they were 19th in the previous 2015-2016 season by allowing 228 goals. They also improved their penalty killing, owning the NHL’s best PK at 85.7%. In 2015-2016 they were still good, coming in at 11th with an 82.2% success rate. Overall though, everything on the defensive side of the house was better.

What might be the most impressive aspect of the improvement is we were able to see in house organizational depth that the Bruins have on defense. Guys like Brandon Carlo, and for a brief stint Rob O’Gara and Matt Grzelcyk, showed they can play at a young age. And it is only going to get deeper and better once prospects Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril arrive next season. Both of them are ticketed most likely to begin seasoning their careers in the AHL.

At the start of this season both Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller were injured which made way for previously mentioned first year pros Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara to start opening night in the top 6.  Obviously Carlo shined and remained the entire year. He was the only defenseman to play in all 82 games. Another first year pro, previously mentioned as well, made his NHL debut with the Bruins, Matt Grzelcyk. The local boy played in 2 games and looked good as well.

Whether they were ready or not another example of organization depth was in the playoffs. Bruins staple Torey Krug, and Carlo, never appeared in a game while the B’s also lost Adam McQuaid in Game 2. The Bruins still came within a couple overtime bounces from advancing despite the deficiencies they dealt with. 

Regardless, the table is set for a bright future on the Bruins blue line.

As for this season, Brandon Carlo in my opinion is one of the big reasons for the improved defense so much in just one year. He gave the Bruins a big bodied mobile defenseman they could pair with Chara to create a shutdown unit. Not to take anything away from Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid, but they are not top 4 defenseman and Carlo impressively was at age 19. 

I do think Carlo will also be able to produce on the offensive end more than he did this past season as he is a very smooth skater and moves the puck well. We saw a few times this season that he can also rip it, highlighted by a few bar down snipes. I could see him getting second power play minutes in the future. 

Carlo had his ups and downs this season as any 19-20 year old defenseman would in the NHL but he still averaged 20:48 of ice time and gained the trust of then coach Claude Julien, which for a young defenseman is hard to do. Carlo gets an A- grade for the season mainly due to expectations were relatively low and he exceeded them by a large margin.

Torey Krug proved that his big payday over the summer was well deserved. Krug signed a 4-year, $21 million whopper (cap hit of $5.25) that I’m not sure even he thought he’d get years ago. He averaged 21:36 of ice time to go with 8 goals and 43 assists which was good for 8th in points in the NHL amongst defenseman. 

Due to an MCL injury Krug was sorely missed in the playoff series against Ottawa and the power play wasn’t the same without him. As for his all around game I’m sure he’d like his minus-10 to look better but it’s not a truly important stat and you can’t have everything looking shiny.

Krug gets a season ending grade of a B+. The point total was great, but I want to see more improvement in the defensive end which I think will come.

What can you say about Zdeno Chara? Yeah we all know he skates around with a piano on his back but at age 39 (he turned 40 last month) he had a terrific season. I thought he was much better this than the last few years and finally the Bruins coaching staff took him off of the power play. One thing I noticed this season is that he doesn’t take the big clapper anymore. He typically is taking quicker wrist shots to get the shot through and not taking the roof scraper bomb that takes about an hour to get off. 

Last year at this time I thought there was no way they should keep Chara around through his twilight years, but after this season I do not see any reason not to keep him. He was productive and healthy for most of the season and his cap hit goes down from $7 million to $4 million next season. No he is not a number one anymore but he is still the best defenseman the Bruins have at this point. The team leading 23:19 average ice time per game for Chara was probably a bit too much for him but there wasn’t another dependable veteran presence at his skill level to take some of the burden off of him. Hopefully they can reduce that by a couple of minutes with some help next season. 

From his interview at cleanout day on Tuesday it also does not sound like he is planning on retiring once his contract expires after next season. Chara’s season ending grade is a B+.

As for Kevan Miller, many throughout the NHL know not to mess with him. But not everyone is that smart. He can fight with the best of them and is one tough SOB, leaving a few bodies in his wake this season. He missed the first part of the year with a broken hand and also missed some time with a concussion. And with the emergence of Brandon Carlo the coaching staff was able to slot Kevan Miller in a more fitting role as bottom paring defenseman. Once Bruce Cassidy was promoted to interim HC Kevan Miller raised his game. His puck possession game was much better and he scored a pretty goal against the Chicago Blackhawks in the last week of the season. He was also a beast in the playoffs and really helped the Bruins weather the storm of injuries the went through. After his improved late season and playoff play I really hope Kevan Miller is not the player picked in the upcoming expansion draft. I never thought I’d say that. Kevan Miller’s season ending grade is a C+.

Yet everything Kevan Miller brings in the toughness department Adam McQuaid brings just a little more. In today’s NHL McQuaid might be the most feared fighter. This guy is scary when he drops the gloves. Holy hell some of the beat downs he gave people were downright unfair.  The scariest part about it? I think he enjoys it. 

At this point of his career McQuaid is who he is. Like Kevan Miller he is a bottom pairing defenseman. For the entire season he was playing a top 4 role and that just is not what he is. He makes defensive gaffs with bad gap control and turnovers at times. But for the most part he is a solid NHL defenseman and is under valued in Boston in that regard. Again, like Kevan Miller, McQuaid could be selected in the expansion draft and I would hate to lose his toughness but he is limited in the puck moving department. I think it would be a little less of a loss than losing Kevan Miller. McQuaid’s season ending grade is a C.

Colin Miller had a rough start to the season. At times I thought he was one of the Bruins better defenseman, making strides, and then he would be a healthy scratch. With that being said, I really wanted to see more development from him. He skates really well and has a hard shot but that has not translated to producing offense consistent offense. He only registered 6 goals and 7 assists and his speed also gets him into trouble at times when he takes some chances offensively or even over pursues on a bad angle defensively. 

I would always laugh when I saw mock Las Vegas expansion drafts where he was the Bruins player selected because I thought there was no way the Bruins would not protect him but now I am not so sure. At the very least he is a tradable asset and I would hate for the B’s to lose him for nothing. Colin Miller’s season ending grade is a C-.  I just did not see enough of what he can bring to the table on a consistent nightly basis.

As for the John-Michael Liles re-signing last summer, I didn’t get it at the time but he did provide that veteran seventh defenseman depth. He really did not provide much else though. At a price tag of $2 million you’d like a little more bang for that buck than just a seventh man. I think it may have been better, for sure financially, to keep Dennis Seidenberg one more season as a seventh D-man and then buy out Seide’s now instead of keeping Liles around this season. However no one knew then that Brandon Carlo was going to do what he did.  

I could not tell you what kind of veteran leadership Liles may have provided because you did not really hear much about him this season. And I don’t see any possible way this guy is back next year either. I think he is going to have a hard time finding a job anywhere in the NHL to be honest but I also thought that last off season. His season ending grade from me is a D.

There is not much to say about Joe Morrow, the last true piece of the disgraceful Tyler Seguin trade. After this season the Bruins will most likely not have anything to show for that deal. Joe Morrow has been a huge disappointment in Boston and it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise with how the former first round pick was willingly traded from Pittsburgh to Dallas and Dallas to Boston. With the D prospects coming down the pipe it does not look promising that Morrow has a future in Boston. I also do not think some of it is his fault. He really has not had much of an opportunity to grab ice time. He could have used more AHL time to develop but due to the CBA he would have needed to clear waivers to get there and that would not have happened. 

Morrow will be an RFA this off season and I do think there could be a market for him. The Bruins might not get much in return but they could get something due to his surprisingly strong play in the playoffs. I thought he played really well in that moment for basically not playing NHL level hockey for 3 months. His last game before the playoffs was way back on on January 22nd. In his limited regular season action he averaged 15:31 of ice time. In the playoffs he averaged 22:12. Morrow’s season ending grade is an Incomplete due to only playing in 17 games all season.

As for the future it is hard not to be excited about what is coming for the Bruins on defense. We saw in the playoffs what Charlie McAvoy can bring and to take a few words from Tony Massarotti, “I have a chubby for Charlie.” Like I said before he got the call up in my BostonPucks.com’s Prospect of the Week: Charlie McAvoy blog, there is no way he is not in the Bruins lineup next season. The kid is a stud.

With the improvement on defense from last to now I feel like it is only going to continue to get better. But the bottom line, the Bruins are not going to be true Stanley Cup contenders until Chara is no longer their best defenseman. He really needs to be a second pairing guy and a top end star (Chalie Mac?) needs to emerge from the pack or be acquired. Those are the guys that win Cups. If the Bruins can find that left shot defenseman who can be the top guy to limit Chara’s minutes, watch out. Until then they probably won’t be a true contender but they are absolutely moving in the right direction.

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