Matt Grzelcyk isn’t one of the household names on the Boston Bruins’ defense, but do not let that take away from just how important he has become for the team.
That importance was on display for much of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night when he wasn’t available following a hit from St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist. Sundqvist is facing a suspension for the hit, while the Bruins announced on Thursday that Grzelcyk is listed as “day-to-day” as he enters the concussion protocol.
He is also not making the trip to St. Louis with the team on Thursday, leaving his status for Games 3 and 4 of the series very much in doubt.
This would be a problem for the Bruins.
First, Grzelyck has developed into one of the more underrated players on the Bruins’ roster due to his ability to skate and move the puck. He may not be one of their big-minute players or one of their top point producers, but he is excellent when it comes to starting the rush out of the defensive zone and breaking down the opposing forecheck, an area where St. Louis feasted in Game 2, and especially after Grzelcyk exited the game.
“Losing the 15 to 16 minutes of [Grzelcyk’s] time, he’s a good puck mover and a guy that can break down a forecheck when he’s on,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy following the Game 2 loss.
“The forecheck was a strength of theirs tonight and a weakness of ours — breaking pucks out. [Grzelcyk] is good at the big escape and the big clean pass to get our forwards moving. We lost some of that element.”
Just to get a sense for how good Grzelcyk is at helping the Bruins move the puck and transition to the offensive zone, there is not a defender on the team that starts a higher percentage of their shifts in the defensive zone. Despite those tough assignments he is still one of their best defenders when it comes to shot attempt differential, scoring chance differential, and high-danger scoring chance differential. In other words, they are still creating more offense than their opponents when he is on the ice even though he is consistently being put into defensive situations, furthest away from the attacking net.
“He’s been fantastic,” said Brandon Carlo, one of Grzelcyk’s many defense partners in the playoffs.
“Obviously he’s gotten some pucks in the net here in the playoffs and brought that offensive presence. Have lot of respect for the way he plays. He’s very responsible offensively. I’ve had the opportunity to be played with him at times, and it makes the game a lot easier for his partner, just with the way he sees the ice and moves the puck.”
If he is not available the Bruins not only have to replace his spot (with either John Moore or Steve Kampfer) but there is also the potential trickle down impact that comes with him not being there. The Bruins have rolled their three defense pairings fairly evenly throughout the playoffs, and losing Grzelcyk’s minutes could put more pressure on some of the other blue liners that aren’t quite as effective as he is when it comes to moving the puck.
Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug are impact players and make plays in all three zones, but there is a pretty sharp drop-off on the rest of the defense when it comes to that aspect of the game. If either Moore or Kampfer were better than Grzelcyk, they would be playing over him, so there is obviously going to be some sort of a drop when it comes to his replacement. Zdeno Chara isn’t quite what he was years ago, and while Carlo is a strong defensive player he has some limitations when it comes to making plays with the puck on his stick.
The positive news for the Bruins is that dealing with injuries to significant players is not a new thing for them over the past two years. Just about all of their best players have missed an extended period of time (often times together) and they have still managed to keep winning games. It is a testament to the depth they have assembled and the job that Cassidy and his staff have done behind the bench.
But this isn’t some random stretch in the middle of November. This is the Stanley Cup Final where there is little margin for error, you are playing a great team every night, and that opposing coaching staff is doing far more intense scouting and game-planning that is designed to exploit whatever weakness you have.
If Grzelcyk is forced to miss time, that could prove to be a significant weakness that the Blues might be able to exploit.
Blues-Bruins Game 3 is Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET from Enterprise Center on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.