What does future hold for Bruins defense without Zdeno Chara?

(Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

He may not be the perennial Norris Trophy candidate of yesteryear, but even at 43 years old, Zdeno Chara still held significant sway over the Bruins' locker room — and considerable influence over a D corps featuring a number of 25-and-other regulars in 2019-20.

Now, with Chara off to Washington, the onus now falls on Charlie McAvoy and Co. to keep Boston's structured defensive identity intact and shield both Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak from whatever offensive salvos await in Grade-A ice this season.

It's a task easier said than done, especially if Boston still hopes to orchestrate another deep playoff run with the remainder of this veteran core intact.

So what can we expect from a new-look Bruins blue line in 2021 and beyond?

Baptism by fire for the young guns

The Chara of 2019-20 wasn't eating up minutes like he was a decade ago (he averaged 26:07 of ice time from 2006-11), but the veteran blueliner still served as Bruce Cassidy's go-to option when it came to shutting down opposing top-six lines night in and night out during the 2019-20 season.

In total, there were 108 defensemen that logged at least 1,000 minutes of 5v5 TOI last season — with Chara pacing that sizable pack in terms of the fewest amount of O-zone starts with just 33.28% of his face-offs set in the O-zone. So where exactly do those 19-21 taxing minutes that Chara regularly logged — most spent putting out fires in Boston's own zone — go with this new D corps?

Clearly, this D corps is Charlie McAvoy's now, and it is assumed that he's in line for a sizable bump in minutes moving forward (more on that in a bit). But with Boston looking to generate more 5v5 offense from its D corps — and McAvoy likely set to operate a bit more freely with the puck with a more mobile D partner like Matt Grzelcyk, are we expecting McAvoy to now be handed only 30-40% of his faceoffs in the offensive zone? It seems unlikely.

Of course, the logical next man up in terms of serving as a pure shutdown role should be Brandon Carlo, especially given that his O-zone starts are now in line to be significantly curtailed now that Torey Krug is off in St. Louis. With Boston wanting to keep Krug away from extended shifts in the D-zone, a Krug-Carlo pairing boasted a 64.42% offensive-zone faceoff percentage — a byproduct of maximizing Krug's value to this club. Such won't be the same arrangement with Carlo, who could be teamed up with another defensive-minded, stay-at-home option like Jeremy Lauzon to open the new season.

But Sweeney was candid on Thursday when acknowledging that Chara's minutes can't just be dispersed among the likes of just McAvoy or Carlo.

Whether it be veterans like John Moore and Kevan Miller — or youngsters vying for a starting role like Jakub Zboril or Urho Vaakanainen — other players are going to have to step up in order to hold the line of this revamped D corps. Of course, it remains to be seen who steps up into such a role — and the B's don't have an awful lot of time to figure it out before the regular season opens in less than two weeks.

"We do have to spread those minutes around," Sweeney said. "Situations as I described earlier, that some other players have not been exposed to. Whether or not they're capable of (it), I certainly believe that they would like to be in those situations and aspire to be in those situations. We’re going to do it by committee and allow some of these guys a little bit of trial and error and potentially fail as a result of it. But also succeed as a result of it and not look over their shoulder in any way, shape or form because they have to gain that experience.

"You’re not going to move forward in your career if you’re not put in those situations. Sometimes you fall flat and other times you rise up. We have several players, Carlo and McAvoy and Kevan Miller coming back on board. Obviously Grizz has been in situations and Jeremy Lauzon and John Moore and Jakub Zboril, who is looking for an opportunity to breakthrough at the National Hockey League level. The players we have on our roster are what they are. The competition will begin and there are no guarantees and we understand that."

And don't forget, the PK will also need more contributors to step up in Chara's absence — as @bruins_stats notes below:

Handing the keys to Charlie McAvoy: 

With Chara gone, the time is now for Charlie McAvoy to ascend as Boston's top defenseman. It should be a pretty seamless transition — considering, well, McAvoy has been Boston's top defenseman for quite some time now.

The 23-year-old defenseman was already an analytics darling last season, ranking in the 98th percentile in even-strength defense, 98th percentile in expected goals against and 97th percentile in quality of competition among NHL defensemen last year, per JFreshHockey.

Of course, McAvoy's baseline numbers and game film are already impressive in their own right — with the BU product averaging 23:10 of ice time per game last season, including 25:10 of average ice time up in the Toronto bubble. McAvoy, who ranked 19th among 197 defensemen in 5v5 points per 60 minutes (1.25) played like a man possessed down the stretch in 2019-20 — recording 15 points in his final 17 games before the COVID pause in March.

Even though more responsibilities will fall on McAvoy's plate in 2021 and beyond, Sweeney doesn't expect McAvoy will need to augment his game all that much. If it ain't broke ...

"We don’t want Charlie to change the way he plays in regards to who he’s playing with," Sweeney said. "I do believe he plays a lion’s share of the minutes and has puck possession, he leads our hockey club in those areas and we don’t want that to change. He shouldn’t feel that he needs any undue pressure on him to change. He just has to go out and play the way that Charlie is capable of playing. We have to have the other people step in to minutes and roles and carry the load. That’s a simple as it is. One player is not going to get you to the promised land, it has to be the collection of the group.

"Our group of six on any particular night needs to transition the puck better, we defend very well as a group. Our forwards need to do a continuing job of hopefully adding to the depth to our hockey club up front. Our goaltending is still where we feel is at an elite level. And the rest of the players have to assume their own roles. Charlie really shouldn’t have any increased or added pressure. He’s been at that level. We’re going to continue to have him at that level, probably introduce a little more of the power play opportunities to him."

Matt Grzelcyk: 

While Sweeney doesn't expect McAvoy to drastically change his game moving forward, that may not be the case for Grzelcyk — especially with Boston's power-play quarterback in Krug no longer in the fold.

Grzelcyk, who was handed a four-year, $14.75 million contract back in October, should be the first man up as Boston looks to find a new regular to operate on the blue line during the man advantage. In a small sample size, Grzelcyk impressed in such a role in 2019-20 —with his 12.07 goals scored per 60 minutes rate alongside Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak on the power play last season eclipsing Krug’s 11.72 GF/60 with that same unit.

"It was part of the opportunity with the power play and the situations on the offensive blue line that Matt will obviously get an opportunity to explore and see where his game can ascend to," Sweeney said of Grzelcyk's role this season. "Defensively, there will be a little more responsibility in matchup situations. Whether he can handle that increased role and beyond whatever it is, that 19-20-minute threshold remains to be seen. We have to be careful there in terms of breaking down, where players begin to breakdown and inefficiencies start to arise. We do monitor that with all of our players. But again, the opportunity is in front of Matt and we’ll see how far he can run with that. Not unlike the other players that we have in the organization this season."

Grzelcyk, who led all B’s defensemen in 5v5 goals against per 60 minutes last season at 1.63, will be in line for tougher defensive assignments after primarily skating in a third-pairing role over his first few seasons in Boston. However, pairing him next to McAvoy in a top-pairing role has yielded positive results in the past three seasons.

In that 505 minutes of even-strength ice time that the Grzelcyk-McAvoy pair has been utilized over the last three seasons, Boston holds the edge in:

Shot attempts: 551-390 (58.55% shot share)
Shots on goal: 
309-222 (58.19% share)
Scoring chances: 280-184 (60.34% share)
High-danger scoring chances: 117-74 (61.26% share)
Goals scored: 32-20 (61.54% share)

No letters necessary: 

Although Chara leaves a sizable void in terms of his leadership on the ice, his departure won't necessarily leave a void in terms of the chain of command within Boston's roster — at least as far as the captaincy goes.

"Yes, we expect to have a captain," Sweeney said. "We will allow this some time to breathe for Zdeno and his decision. We’ll make a decision moving forward, I think it’s an obvious decision and one that we’ll make in a respectful manner at an appropriate time. But I think it is important to allow this moment, as raw as it is, to let it play out for the time being as we get on the doorstep to training camp. But we will do that in the right and appropriate manner."

When speaking with the media on Thursday, Chara pretty took all of the suspense out of any future announcement — much to the surprise of, well, just about no one.

"There's no question Patrice (Bergeron) is going to be next captain of the Boston Bruins," Chara said. "I think everybody knows that. I think that he's absolutely the right person to have as a captain. He's been a part of the Boston Bruins organization for in 15-16 years now and he's done so much for the team, for the organization, for the community. So he's going to be an unbelievable captain and leader. He's obviously, well proven in crunch time to deliver. 

"And the impact he has on players, teammates, coaches, fans, and everybody in the community is tremendous. So I can't imagine anybody else to be a captain. And I'm truly very, very happy that he's gonna be the next captain, because he really deserves it. And I can't thank him enough for everything he's done for the Bruins, for me personally, supporting our kind of vision and leading together in Boston. I'm very happy for him."

Well, that settles that. The likes of McAvoy, Carlo and Grzelcyk are all expected to take on more vocal roles on the augmented B's blue line of 2021 and beyond — but for as much as Chara's exit does close a fruitful chapter in this Original Six franchise's history, the roster is still in good hands with Bergeron — who's worn the "A" for over a decade — at the helm.