Bruins young defenders expected to have big roles without Chara

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders. Coverage begins at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Bruins let their captain go for a reason; they believe its time for their young, homegrown defensemen to have a role in this league.

In their two-game series with the Devils to open the season, Jeremy Lauzon began on the top pairing with Charlie McAvoy — Zdeno Chara’s old spot in the lineup.

It wasn’t a world-shattering performance for the 23-year-old; in more challenging situations, the Bruins moved Matt Grzelcyk up instead. In 11:51 of five-on-five play in Thursday’s opener with the Devils, the McAvoy – Lauzon pairing allowed five scoring chances and three of them high-danger.

That’s not ideal for your first pairing, but it could also be fluid, especially given the Bruins tendency to mix their lineup around every which way. His true value anyways is on the penalty kill, where he led all Bruins in shorthanded time on Thursday night.

Lauzon was likely going to see time Chara or not, though. The real question mark is Jakub Zboril of 2015 draft infamy. He’s been up and down the past couple of years, spending most of his time with AHL Providence, but all indications are he’ll get every opportunity to be a regular with the NHL club.

That was their reasoning for letting Chara go, at least, so one would think he’d get a long leash.

He was solid on Thursday to begin the team-appointed Zboril era.

“I thought Zboril had a pretty good game. He’s moving the puck well, he’s clean, he sees the ice well,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy told media after the opener in Newark. “Jeremy got beat inside on the second goal, so we’ll talk to him about that.”

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Zboril certainly outshone Lauzon in the first game. In 19 minutes, mostly paired with Kevan Miller (who, himself looked super human for a guy who hasn’t played in two years and fractured his knee twice) he was only on the ice for two shots against five-on-five.

It’s worth keeping in mind Zboril mostly went up against the Devils third line, where Miles Wood was certainly noticeable, but in the gauntlet of forward depth in the East, it’s going to get tougher, especially without a crutch like Chara to throw out there at any point to settle things down.

“This is the year that I should be making the step,” Zboril, said to reporters earlier last week. “So I’m really focused in every single practice and really digging in to get a chance and get a hold on to it. We’ll see where it takes me.”

Connor Clifton, who has been in and out of the lineup since making an impact in the 2019 postseason, was beat out by Miller in camp, but given Miller’s health questions, should get a crack at the lineup at some point. Cassidy has also discussed moving him to the left side if needed, especially if Zboril or Lauzon have struggles.

Saturday’s game looked similar to Thursday; Zboril stepped up when he had to, and made up for the five minutes Miller was in the box early for a fight with Wood.

“He had a pretty good game,” Cassidy told media afterwards. “He was moving the puck well, he was clean, sees the ice.”

It’s expected there will be growing pains; every team has rust to shake off and no one had preseason games. The Bruins schedule deals with teams a lot tougher than the Devils though, such as the Islanders on Monday night, and the young defenders will have to step up with tougher competition, whether they’re ready or not.

Lauzon played better on Saturday as well in the quick turnaround from Thursday night. He stayed more consistently with McAvoy, and the defense wasn’t the issue in the 2-1 overtime loss.

If Lauzon and Zboril do falter, the options are limited between Clifton and John Moore, who has flat out not worked in Boston. There’s a lot riding on the young guys, and the organization will tell you that’s how they want it. They made their choice, now they have 54 games left to see if it was the right one.

Kathryn Tappen anchors studio coverage throughout the evening with analysts Anson Carter, Patrick Sharp and Dominic Moore.

Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.

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