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How the Bruins could use their defensive depth to their advantage

An in-depth look at the Bruins’ defensive situation, and how they can profit from it

NHL: Boston Bruins at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: This post was written and published before Charlie McAvoy’s absence. Adjust your reading accordingly.

The Bruins have felt very good about their roster as of late. Records can often be misleading; take the Ottawa Senators, for example, who made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final last season. Their record indicated they were a better team than the underlying numbers, leading them to mis-evaluate and mis-manage their team.

Fortunately, the Bruins are dominating games, and the underlying numbers indicate they are as strong as their record indicates. Why they’ve become so good is up for debate. Obviously, when the Bruins were struggling with injuries early on, Bruins fans knew the team wasn’t at full strength. But with the likes of David Backes, David Krejci, Ryan Spooner, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand all in good health, this Bruins team is deep up front.

When I originally wrote this, Miller was still in the lineup, and McQuaid was still out. Wednesday night, McQuaid returned, and Miller was out with an illness. That lineup also continued to function in Brooklyn against the Islanders Thursday night, and again against the Habs Saturday night - but, is there room for improvement?

Let’s first evaluate the Grzelcyk/Miller pairing. Many Bruins fans have recognized that this has been a good pairing for the Bruins, but I feel they don’t fully appreciate them. So, let’s take a deeper dive into the pair’s numbers together.

To form a dataset to compare the duo to other defensive pairs, I took all pairs who’ve played 200 minutes together this season. This left us with 87 entries, or close to 3 per team, up to the day Miller left the lineup.

Of the 87, the Grzelcyk/Miller pairing sits 5th in CF% at 56.01. The most comparable pairing is Doughty and Muzzin in Los Angeles who have a CF% of 56.05.

They also sit 5th in GF% at 68.42. While Grzelcyk and Miller have been on the ice, the Bruins have scored 13 goals and given up 6. There happens to be another Bruins tandem higher at this stat, the top pair in Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. These two had 26 goals for and 11 against at the point Miller left the lineup, for a GF% of 70.27 which sat second in the league to Doughty and Muzzin.

Sitting 5th in both CF% and GF%, the Bruins’ bottom pairing has been one of the best in the league. Sure, they don’t face as tough of competition as Chara and McAvoy or Doughty and Muzzin, but to be as successful in their minutes as they have been, is remarkable.

With the second pairing of Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo struggling, having a terrific third pair has really helped the Bruins. There isn’t really a defensive pair on the Bruins that an opposing coach would want to match up against. During the regular season, that isn’t such a big deal, but come playoff time, that depth could really help the Bruins on the road.

When we talk about matchups, I love to look at heat maps. It takes the numbers, and it visualizes it in a way that you can understand what and where things are happening on the ice.

The Grzelcyk/Miller pairing for the Bruins has been a shutdown pair. There is a very small red area within the home plate, but other than that, it is all blue for the high-quality areas. This means that the pair gives up less shots than league average from those areas.

Even the points are blue, which indicates that the pairing and their teammates are not only well positioned in the defensive zone, but that they are also doing a good job at preventing entries, especially those with control, to not allow much offensive zone possession time for their opponents.

Although they may be a “shutdown” pairing, Grzelcyk’s offensive talent has been undeniable since his days at Boston University. He sits first among Bruins’ defensemen in 5v5 on-ice goals for per 60 at 3.72. Miller sits far down on the team at 2.2, but he’s expected to be a defensive defenseman.

With such a good pairing, it is hard to mess with it. Apparently, Miller is still unhealthy as Bruce Cassidy told the Boston Herald, “[Miller] hasn’t really had a full practice” since sitting for Wednesday night’s game. He also said he didn’t expect Miller to be out long-term, but is not willing to make any promises.

When Cassidy described Miller’s game to the Boston Herald, it seems as though he views it as a battle for position.

If this is truly a position battle, I think there is no question Kevan Miller is the better player. Here is a snapshot of their key stats at 5v5 below since the start of the 2015-16 season.

As you can see, Miller has much more offensive upside, takes fewer penalties, and is slightly better at controlling play. McQuaid is also seen as a below-replacement player, and also just covered how good Miller has been with Grzelcyk above. Based on a poll I ran on Twitter, many feel the same.

There is also another right-handed defenseman being scratched every game - Paul Postma. He has shown higher offensive upside than Miller and McQuaid in the same time frame, and stands in a similar place to McQuaid in terms of controlling play.

So what do the Bruins do about this situation?

Option 1: Play with 7 Defensemen

I don’t feel many Bruins fans would like to see this happen. For whatever reason, Boston fans have a history of falling in love with their fourth lines. This season is no different. And sitting one of Tim Schaller, Sean Kuraly, or Noel Acciari would not sit well with fans.

For one, it is hard to determine who should sit. All three have similar production numbers. Due to Schaller’s speed and penalty killing history, I think he stays in the lineup along with Acciari, leaving the forward groups looking something like this:

Marchand - Bergeron - Pastrnak

Spooner - Krejci - DeBrusk

Heinen - Nash - Backes

Schaller - Acciari

Most likely Pastrnak, Backes, and Krejci would spend the most time filling up that open spot on the fourth line. That shouldn’t be a problem, but look at the defensemen for a second.

Chara - McAvoy

Krug - Carlo

Grzelyck - Miller

McQuaid

Typically when you see a 7D lineup, there is an offensive specialist. With an offensive specialist, you can use them in certain game situations like the powerplay, or when you are trailing. With McQuaid and Miller being defensive defensemen, does Carlo get the boot when the Bruins are trying to protect a lead? I doubt it. Surely McAvoy won’t be sitting either.

Grzelcyk or Krug would most likely be the ones to sit if you were to give McQuaid ice time at 5v5. This is a bad move because handedness is important, and Krug and Grzelcyk have proven to be solid left-shot defensemen.

Option 2: Trade a defenseman

This is a tough one. According to Elliotte Friedman on the 31 Thoughts Podcast, the Bruins are in the market for a defenseman. That is kind of laughable since they already have 8, but I think he means a top 4 defenseman specifically. Someone like Mike Green in Detroit.

In order to clear space for that, you must give up a defenseman. Say a trade with Detroit to acquire Mike Green is on the horizon, McQuaid may need to be moved to clear cap space. His cap hit is a little over $2 million higher than Postma, and is about the same player.

Option 3: Do nothing

If the Bruins do nothing, they are stuck in the same rut. I find it highly unlikely the Bruins don’t at least make a minor move by the deadline, in which case we are referring to doing nothing in the near term.

One perk of having 8 defensemen is the option to rotate players on the stretch leading up to the playoffs. Taking a look at the Bruins schedule in February, they have a back-to-back on the road the 6th and 7th, along with a western Canadian trip the 17th, 19th, and 20th, before coming back to Toronto and Buffalo the 24th and 25th.

We see this more often in the NBA, but not in the NHL, which has a far tougher season. The Bruins could also use Vatrano to rest some forwards during that span as well. According to corsica.hockey, the Bruins have a 99.9% chance of making the playoffs. Their focus should be on taking a healthy, refreshed team into April.

In the end, we’ll have to see how it all plays out. I’d hope to see more of Grzelcyk and Miller down the stretch. We also inconveniently forget about Postma, and it would be a smart move by the Bruins to use him through the tough February schedule to rest players.