The last time the Bruins hoisted the Stanley Cup, Matt Grzelcyk was 17-years old and wrapping up his first year in Ann Arbor, Mich. as part of Team USA’s National Team Development Program.
A year away from getting drafted by the Bruins with the 77th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Grzelcyk was already seeing his stock rise among blueline prospects in North America, projecting as a shifty, puck-moving skater that could contribute on the scoresheet.
But when looking at the landscape of the league — especially among defenseman — Grzelcyk didn’t exactly fit the mold, at least with the initial eye test.
Whereas Boston’s D corps during their run to the Cup had an average height of 6-foot-3 (with 5-foot-11 Andrew Ference standing as the lone defenseman under 6-feet), Grzelcyk entered the Bruins organization with a profile of 5-foot-9 and just a hair over 170 pounds.
Had this been a decade prior, perhaps a window wouldn’t be presented for a smaller defenseman like Grzelcyk to excel up at the NHL level. But exceeding expectations have started to become the norm for the Charlestown native, who has risen up the ranks from a depth call-up in 2017 and has transformed into one of the most effective defensemen in the league when it comes to controlling the blue line.
“Teams want to play fast, so you need to be able to skate in today’s game,” Grzelcyk said of carving out a role on this Bruins club. “Pretty fortunate to have that happen, coming up at this time as a hockey player. It’s just the way that teams want to play now.”
While the 2018-19 Bruins still have plenty of big bodies on the blue line in Zdeno Chara (6-foot-9) and Brandon Carlo (6-foot-5), the addition of smaller skaters such as Grzelcyk and 5-foot-9 Torey Krug has injected plenty of speed and skill on the back end for this club — and Boston is far from the only organization to adopt the trend.
As snarl and brawn continue to take a back seat in today’s NHL, more and more undersized defensemen are becoming a hot commodity across the league — with 10 of the 23 blueliners taken in the first round of the 2017 and 2018 NHL Draft measuring out at under 6 feet.
“It’s just the way the game is going,” Grzelcyk said. “There’s not as much clutching and grabbing. It’s kind of, I don’t want to say less physical, but it’s just a different brand of hockey. If you can skate well in today’s game, it’s going to suit you well. It’s giving a chance for us smaller defenseman to play in the NHL.”
On pace for an 18-point campaign in his second full season with the Bruins, Grzelcyk may not generate the scoring punch that, say, Krug might provide, but the defenseman’s value stretches far beyond what he can generate in the offensive zone.
With regulars such as Chara, Kevan Miller, Krug and Carlo all sidelined by injuries over the first couple of months of the regular season, Grzelcyk thrived under a heavier workload and hasn’t looked back — averaging close to three more minutes per game (19:29 TOI) than in 2017-18 while leading all B's D-men with 58 games played so far.
A versatile player that has played on his right side as of late on a pairing with fellow left-shot D John Moore, Grzelcyk also ranks second on the club among defensemen in power-play TOI (1:39) while averaging 47 seconds of PK reps per game as well.
Grzelcyk’s skating ability and playmaking prowess paved the way for his promotion up from Providence, but in Bruce Cassidy’s eyes, it’s been the 25-year-old’s decision making that has made him a staple on this Bruins’ roster this season.
“His first few steps are terrific,” Cassidy said of Grzelcyk. “He’s quick. I wouldn’t call him — like, Johnny Moore is just plain fast — but Grizz is more quick than fast, so he separates in a hurry. He’s got great hockey IQ. He’s a guy that wants to move it, wants to beat the first guy, and find our next guy to move that to. I think our forwards recognize that, that he’s good at beating that first guy, so it gives them an extra second to find a hole.
“I think when he first got here, I think he was a little tentative to anything with any risk at all. He didn’t want to do. Now, he’s a lot more comfortable if there’s some level of risk of doing, and most of the time, it works out well for us.”
As evidenced during Tuesday’s win over the Hurricanes, Grzelcyk tends to make even the riskiest plays look rather pedestrian — whether it be snuffing out potential Grade-A chances in Boston’s zone with a quick poke check or orchestrating the breakout with a first pass originating from behind the B’s net.
(After a quick fumble, Grzelcyk pivots and shuts down a potential breakaway bid for Sebastian Aho with some nice stick work.)
Among Bruins regulars that have logged at least 30 games this season, Grzelcyk ranks fifth overall with a goals allowed rate per 60 minutes of play of just 2.09 — an impressive mark given that he often logs four or five more minutes per game than some of Boston’s forwards.
His ability to hold his own in the defensive zone has been evident by his defensive zone start percentage of 49.3 percent — which actually ranks him ahead of teammates such as John Moore (47.9 percent) and Carlo (47.1 percent).
When it comes to breakup percentage (Dividing the number of times a skater dispossesses an offensive player of the puck by the number of times said defender targets an offensive skater), Grzelcyk clocks in at 20.5 percent — tops among all B’s defensemen by at least four percentage points, and third among all NHL defensemen behind just Washington’s Madison Bowey (22.2 percent) and Florida’s Aaron Ekblad (25.8 percent).
When you add in Grzelcyk’s ability to be a orchestrate Boston’s breakout, the unassuming defenseman really puts himself in rare company.
(Grzelcyk makes a risky pass from behind Boston’s net look pedestrian while escaping a forechecker, starting a breakout sequence that ends with a clean exit for No. 48.)
When looking at possession exits, which is counted as when a defender either carries the puck out of the zone or completes a successful pass out of the zone, Grzelcyk has been a wizard — carrying or feeding the puck out of the Bruins’ defensive zone on 49.4 percent of his total exit attempts. The only players with higher possession exit percentages? Nick Leddy of the Islanders (49.41 percent) and Samuel Girard of the Avalanche (49.5 percent).
What makes Grzelcyk truly a diamond in the rough is his ability to be both a dependable weapon on the breakout, while also excelling in defending Boston’s own blue line.
While a franchise defenseman like Ekblad might be a bit better in break-up percentage and a speedster like Girard might have a slim edge in possession exits, no defensemen is quite as skilled in both areas like Grzelcyk.
When it comes to posting a break-up percentage over 20 and a possession exit percentage over 49%, Grzelcyk is in a category all his own. The next closest candidate? San Jose’s Erik Karlsson (17.7 break-up percentage, 48.5 possession exit percentage). Pretty fantastic company.
(Grzelcyk marked in the black circle.)
“I think he can be down, but he’s never out of a play, just because of his skating ability,” Krug said of Grzelcyk. “His ability to recover is pretty remarkable. He doesn't have the length that maybe Zdeno has, but he makes up for that. Down but never out is something that I see in him.
“He can read plays with the best of them. He’s a great player. The addition of him on the backend has allowed for cleaner breakouts with other lines than in the past, where it’s kind of been a one-horse thing, so to have him back there has been great.”
Grzelcyk’s progression this year — coupled with the strides made by fellow youngsters such as Carlo and Charlie McAvoy — have been key on a Bruins D corps that has relinquished just 2.44 goals per game, the second-lowest mark in the NHL.
Inked through the 2019-20 season with an annual cap hit of just $1.4 million, Grzelcyk is well on his way to establishing himself as one of the most effective weapons on any blue line in the league.
The undersized defenseman has continued to prove doubters wrong with every new game logged up in the NHL ranks, but Grzelcyk isn’t one to let his pre-draft projections or questions regarding his height define his game — nor is it something that he draws motivation from.
“I try not to think about,” Grzelcyk said. “I’m here now and I’m trying to make the most of the opportunity and try not to take it for granted. I don’t think about things where it could be viewed as outside distractions. I’m just happy to be here.”