He spent the last four winters just down the street at Boston University, knowing this day would come. Now it’s here, the official start of his workaday hockey life, and Bruins rookie defenseman Matt Grzelcyk can’t avoid feeling the lingering tug of the Commonwealth Avenue campus.
“Talking to my buddies at school, and hearing how their classes and stuff are going,’’ Grzelcyk, 22, mused the other day, “it feels weird not to wake up there, be heading to class and stuff, but . . .”
Raised across the river in Charlestown, Grzelcyk in the spring signed his entry-level NHL contract with the Bruins and on Thursday he will join the rest of the Black-and-Gold fresh faces for the start of rookie camp. They’ll take their physicals, be handed their sweater numbers, and take their first baby steps toward their NHL careers.
Somewhat undersized at 5 feet 9 inches, 175 pounds, Grzelcyk may be fighting bigger odds than some of his competition — including Brandon Carlo (6-5/200), Jeremy Lauzon (6-2, 195), and Rob O’Gara (6-4/205) — for a spot on the varsity roster.
In the ever-up-tempo NHL, however, Grzelcyk has the foot speed and sleight-of-hand puckhandling ability that could provide him an edge. He also is slightly older than Carlo and Lauzon (both 19) and is slotted for a different role than the much stouter O’Gara, the ex-Yale standout.
“I think moving the puck is probably my strongest asset,’’ said Grzelcyk, who captained the Terriers his last two years, eschewing the opportunity to turn pro after his junior year. “I skate a lot in the summer with some pro guys and I feel pretty comfortable out there. I feel like it kind of comes natural.
“The biggest challenge for me will be handling the bigger, stronger guys, obviously. With the way I play, I have to play with a lot of confidence as well.
“I think the first thing is to believe in myself and trust my skills — and I do.’’
Job openings appear to be scant, despite the fact that veteran Dennis Seidenberg was bought out over the summer and Zach Trotman exited to sign as a free agent with the Los Angeles Kings. For now, Boston’s top four blue liners are likely to be captain Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, and Colin Miller. The No. 3 pairing figures to be Adam McQuaid and John-Michael Liles, with Joe Morrow pegged for relief duty.
However, much of the Bruins’ failure to make the playoffs last season (for the second year in a row) was due to their faltering back line. No one on the projected depth chart should feel too comfy.
“I think, collectively, we struggled in some areas as a team that we need to address,’’ noted general manager Don Sweeney, who spent a good chunk of the summer poking around for deals to add a high-impact blue liner. “That won’t be any one individual. It is a group-wide thing.
“The group had moments last year where it was very good. Now whether it’s Colin or Joe or John-Michael Liles, or we have to spread around some ice time with [Chara] . . . against that is opportunity for some younger players to assert themselves.”
Enter Grzelcyk. He and his entire band of newbie defensemen should be emboldened by the fact that Sweeney & Co. view the blue line as a “help wanted’’ section.
If coach Claude Julien were to finally peel back some of Chara’s ice time, that alone would present open acres of opportunity. Big Z, who be 40 in March, again last season led the Bruins in average ice time (24:05), some three minutes of that logged on the power play. If Julien were to extract those minutes from the captain, he might still lead the club, given that Krug was second at 21:36.
Seidenberg’s departure also leaves behind his 19:23 TOI to be claimed.
“It’s a great opportunity for your younger guys to realize they’re a big part of our future,’’ said Sweeney. “Whether that is now, they will dictate that, whether they are ready.
“It is a difficult position to get up and running out of the gate, early on, as you start your career. But some of these kids have finished four years of college, and there are plenty of guys like that who’ve stepped in [to NHL jobs] at that level.’’
Grzelcyk virtually grew up on Causeway Street, his father a decades-long member of the Garden bull gang and one of the regular Zamboni drivers. No one has logged more career ice time in Boston than John Grzelcyk. With the “new’’ Garden about to turn 21 years old (Sept. 30), Matt doesn’t have memories of the Bruins playing in the original arena, or of his dad cleaning the ice.
“But I’m pretty sure we’ve got a picture of me inside the old Garden,’’ he said. “Yeah, I mean, I think I was still in the cradle.’’
In a sense, he’s about to emerge from that cradle again, along with the rest of the bright-eyed dreamers in rookie camp. By Friday night, they’ll all be in Buffalo, ready to play in a round-robin tourney through the weekend with the Devils and Sabres. Boston’s varsity camp opens at Warrior Ice Arena in Brighton a week from Thursday.
Grzelcyk, at the advice of BU coach David Quinn, said he’ll shorten his focus as camp starts. Make the big roster? Sure, he said, who wouldn’t want that? Yet rather than make that his raison d’etre from Day 1, he’ll instead focus on the immediate job at hand: get to the rear wall, retrieve pucks, look to make the clean outlet pass that sends the play up ice.
“Make goals really specific,’’ he said. “If the puck is dumped in, be the first one back. Don’t think about what other people are doing, or think about trying to make the team for opening night. Keep your goals small. Work hard. Go from there.’’
Thus far, that approach has carried Grzelcyk from Charlestown across the Charles. On Thursday, the journey continues.