The thinking behind Bruins’ new defense pairings

WEEI Sports Radio
WEEI Sports Radio

When the Bruins hit the ice for Tuesday’s practice at Warrior Ice Arena, they had some interesting new defense pairings.

Matt Grzelcyk moved up to the top pairing with Charlie McAvoy. That’s not too surprising, as they’ve played together plenty in the past.

The second pairing might get your attention, though: Derek Forbort and Brandon Carlo. And then the third pairing featured a rotation of Mike Reilly, Jakub Zboril and Connor Clifton.

So, Forbort and Carlo together? That’s the Bruins’ two biggest defensemen, and the two who are closest to stay-at-home, defense-first players.

That kind of pairing has been a rarity under Bruce Cassidy in recent years, as he usually prefers to pair a player like that with a more mobile partner -- one guy who can get up the ice and join the attack, one who can provide some security and physicality. It's why Forbort’s most common partners this season have been McAvoy and Clifton, while Carlo’s have been Grzelcyk and Reilly.

But there are reasons to think this is worth a shot. The first is that the pairings the Bruins had been using weren’t working, so really any sort of change should be on the table anyways.

The Bruins’ two most common pairings this season -- and their first and second pairings for the last few weeks -- have been Forbort-McAvoy and Grzelcyk-Carlo. In 256 five-on-five minutes with one of those two pairings on the ice, the Bruins have been outscored 15-3 (6-2 in 132 minutes for Forbort-McAvoy, 9-1 in 124 minutes for Grzelcyk-Carlo).

The analytics suggest there’s been some bad luck there, but they still don’t paint a pretty picture. According to Evolving-Hockey , Forbort-McAvoy has a 44.2% expected goals-for percentage (xGF%), while Grzelcyk-Carlo comes in 41.2%. That is just nowhere close to good enough from your top four.

Grzelcyk-McAvoy, meanwhile, has fared much better. In their 100 minutes together, the Bruins have outscored opponents 6-2 and have an xGF% of 74.5%. That comes after a successful season last year when those numbers were 20-7 and 66.4%.

And here’s where things get interesting: the numbers for Forbort and Carlo together -- in a much smaller sample -- are also very good. In their 33 minutes together at five-on-five, the Bruins have outscored opponents 5-0 and have an xGF% of 55.0%. Forbort and Carlo have also played together a lot on the penalty kill, so their chemistry goes beyond just those even-strength shifts.

“We play a pretty similar-style game, so it should be pretty easy to know what each other’s doing out there,” Forbort said. “It’s going to be simple, hard, just kind of make easy plays and be hard to play against. I’ve gotten to play a few shifts with him, just when we’re up a couple goals or when we’re switching things up when we’re down to get more offense [on other pairs].”

The five goals they’ve been on the ice for are nice, and Forbort does have four goals himself this season, but the Bruins aren’t going to expect this pairing to be a major offensive contributor. Instead, it will be more of a shutdown pairing, with coach Bruce Cassidy referencing Carlo playing with Zdeno Chara earlier in his career as something of a model. That should also free up Grzelcyk and McAvoy for more offensive shifts, where they excel.

“Well, Grizz and Charlie have played well together. We know that,” Cassidy said when asked about the changes. “The one guy Forbort really hasn’t partnered with is Carlo, so at some point I was probably going to want to look at it just to see. Grizz, I think right now, is off a little bit. I think playing with Charlie will get him back on track. They tend to play well together.

“I think Brandon played some of his best hockey with Zee in a shutdown role, so just focus on that. I know it’s been a few years. So, he can do that well and hopefully it gets him back to where he needs to be. I just think that [second] pair hasn’t been as strong as it could be. So we move a couple pieces around.”

As for the third pairing, it sounds like Cassidy will stick with Reilly-Zboril for the time being, with Clifton remaining the odd man out. In Reilly and Zboril’s 32 minutes together (again, small sample), the Bruins have outshot opponents 23-12, outscored them 1-0, and have a 68.1% xGF%.

“I’ve liked the Zboril-Reilly pair,” Cassidy said. “They’ve added some good transition, puck movement. Defended hard. Everything we’ve asked Mike to do, he’s done. Zboril’s gone in and been consistent. So we don’t really want to mess with that one if we don’t have to.”

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