Security is tight at NHL rinks.
Suits and physiques are usually good enough to grant players’ access to their workplaces. Considering these parameters, the guards at the gate are prompt to give Matt Grzelcyk an extra peek, even if his wardrobe matches those of his teammates.
Dress him in a beanie and put whiskers on his chin, and the 5-foot-9-inch, 174-pound Grzelcyk could play the part of a barista better than NHL defenseman. Grzelcyk shares the blue line with Zdeno Chara, the biggest man to ever play the game. While everybody defers to the 6-9, 250-pound Chara, the natural inclination with Grzelcyk is to pinch his cheeks and pat him atop his head.
Yet for as out of place as Grzelcyk might seem because of his appearance, his on-ice play dictates he is as worthy as father John, the veteran Bull Gang member, to consider the Garden his office. Saturday marked Grzelcyk’s 11th straight appearance following his Nov. 21 recall from Providence. He has done little to merit a return to Rhode Island.
Grzelcyk entered the game against the Rangers with one goal and two assists while averaging 14:55 of ice time per appearance. He has made most of his shifts count. The 23-year-old has exhibited quick feet, a knack of delivering crisp outlet passes, and zero hesitation at joining the rush or pinching down the left-side wall.
Through 11 games, Grzelcyk’s Corsi For rating was a team-best 63.9 percent, indicating the Bruins are taking more shots than allowing them when he is on the ice. Opponents were averaging 40.2 shot attempts per 60 minutes of five-on-five play against Grzelcyk, according to www.corsica.hockey. In comparison, opponents averaged 55 attempts per 60 against Brandon Carlo, who considers himself a defensive defenseman.
The progression of both the sport and of the Bruins’ style favors Grzelcyk. Good defensemen are no longer primarily counted on for muscle-flexing in the down-low areas. Even a compromised defenseman such as Grzelcyk can overcome his lack of size by defending at the blue line with his positioning and stick.
Unlike previous formations, this year’s defensemen do not stand like soldiers at attention in the defensive zone, waiting for forwards to steer puck carriers their way. The defensemen are on their toes up the ice, shutting down plays in the neutral zone before danger forms closer to their net. They are fortifying the end of the driveway, if you will, instead of waiting for the bad guys to advance to the front door. Grzelcyk can do this all day.
Grzelcyk has kicked down the door, which was left ajar when he advanced past Paul Postma and Rob O’Gara after Adam McQuaid broke his leg. The time is coming, however, for the Bruins to make their next move.
McQuaid is close to returning. The Bruins could use his right-side presence when holding leads and killing penalties. Torey Krug enjoys playing with McQuaid, who stays at home while his left-shot partner roams up the ice. McQuaid would join Carlo, Chara, and Kevan Miller in the penalty-killing rotation.
The trick is how to keep both Grzelcyk and McQuaid in uniform.
Ex-coach Claude Julien was not in favor of dressing seven defensemen. Bruce Cassidy has done it twice: on Nov. 24 against Pittsburgh and No. 29 against Tampa Bay. The Bruins won both games. If no defensemen suffer injuries before McQuaid is cleared, a seven-D rotation would serve the Bruins well.
Cassidy and assistant Kevin Dean, who manages the defense, have not been committed to pairings. Against Washington on Thursday, they split Chara and Charlie McAvoy, their top duo. Chara played with Miller on a strongman twosome, while Grzelcyk was reunited with McAvoy, his former partner at Boston University.
Rolling seven defensemen makes it a little trickier for the coaches. But they are paid to monitor matchups, consider zone starts, and optimize their situational on-ice personnel. Cassidy and Dean can shuffle their pairs and find the right times for the defensemen to play.
It would mean scratching a forward. Tim Schaller and Sean Kuraly would be at risk of being sent to the press box. Schaller went into Saturday’s game with no goals and one assist in his last 17 games. Kuraly is scoreless in his last nine games.
Cassidy would not sit either of them without serious consideration. Against Washington, the fourth line of Schaller, Kuraly, and Noel Acciari was the only one he left alone. Cassidy likes how the three hard-hat forwards make the line a sum greater than its parts.
Schaller (2:06 of shorthanded ice time per game) and Kuraly (0:52) are part of the penalty-killing rotation. But Cassidy and assistant Joe Sacco, who is in charge of the kill, have other options: Acciari, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Riley Nash. They can also tab Danton Heinen and David Backes. David Krejci is an emergency penalty killer.
Some of the Bruins’ youngsters have plateaued at points. Anders Bjork was a healthy scratch Saturday for the first time. Jake DeBrusk grabbed a seat Nov. 11. Grzelcyk has shown no signs of hitting the wall. Neither the press box nor Providence should be in his future.