Jakub Zboril was erratic in his decision-making as a rookie Bruins defenseman in 2020-21, but he showed potential. For example, he made a play against Philadelphia where he pinched down the wall, advanced the puck with a tight spin move through two defenders, and fed a back-diagonal pass to the slot.
Then he got hurt.
Last season, he cracked the Bruins lineup in November. He was assertive and competitive while playing top-four minutes. He played the body when needed and killed penalties. He deployed his best asset — smooth puck movement in transition — with regularity.
Then he got hurt.
Given their injuries and cap situation this season, the Bruins could use a long run of solid play from the 25-year-old, who doesn’t seem down about his rocky break-in.
“I think I did a pretty good job this year,” Zboril said in May, reviewing a 2021-22 season that ended after 10 games (0-3—3) when he tore an ACL Dec. 2 in Nashville. “I showed up with lots of confidence in my game, then I got injured. It was a slap in the face. Hopefully I’m just going to pick up where I left.”
He’ll have a shot. Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk are expected to be out until late November, at least, after shoulder surgeries. Mike Reilly has missed much of the summer recovering from May ankle surgery. Zboril could start off playing 18-20 minutes for new coach Jim Montgomery, with either power-play or penalty-killing duty mixed in.
Zboril, who got back on skates in April, signed a two-year extension with a $1.137 million cap hit after the season. It was another confidence boost, he said, “especially after, you know, getting injured and seeing that the team still believes in me.”
He will be one of eight defensemen on one-way contracts, not including Jack Ahcan and Connor Carrick, who have NHL experience. Ahcan, like Zboril, Grzelcyk, Reilly, Hampus Lindholm, and Derek Forbort, shoots left.
The Bruins, who had an estimated $4.8 million in cap space as of Tuesday, may wind up trading one of their defensemen. Reilly (two years left at $3 million) and Grzelcyk (two years, $3.6875 million) would seem to be candidates. Zboril could provide more value to the Bruins, particularly if they re-sign Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci and get tight to the salary cap.
The arrival of Zboril’s pal Pavel Zacha, a restricted free agent currently in contract negotiations, was received happily by Zboril. The two were childhood friends and teammates in Brno, Czechia, and catch up in the summers back home.
Zboril, the 13th overall pick in the 2015 draft (Zacha was taken sixth by New Jersey), had to be encouraged by the words of Montgomery and his new defensive assistant, John Gruden. Billed in his draft year as a physical, puck-moving, 200-foot defenseman, Zboril likes to get involved in the offense. If his skating is up to par after his injury, he could fit well in the Bruins’ adjusted system.
“I think there’s always a time to get the pucks to the net when teams are out of structure and there’s someone at the net front,” Gruden said recently. “Other than that, it’s always good to get some movement with three high up top and get the D moving a little bit more laterally and create some confusion in the D-zone coverage.
“You have to create some movement and some puck movement amongst the five in the offensive zone to create. That’s something that’ll be a challenge for us but hopefully will be exciting for the players as well, the defensemen especially.”
Last year, Zboril found his confidence at the NHL level. It doesn’t seem to have waned.
“I’m thinking I did it once, so I’m going to be ready to do it again next year,” Zboril said. “It’s NHL, it’s Boston Bruins, it’s always a battle for a spot every training camp. I’m going to be ready to compete for my spot.”