The Boston Bruins are at a crossroads. Management must decide how to construct the team, with an eye towards competing in the short term, building for the long term, or some awkward combination of both. Also up in the air, who will be behind the bench for the Bruins? How will their style impact this roster construction? Finally, and today’s topic of debate, what will their blue line look like for the upcoming season? Will there be pieces moved? Can there be any leaving the organization with the injury bug ripping through the group?
The most experienced of the group, Matt Grzelcyk is a surprise entry on this list, mostly driven by his lack of postseason productivity. During the regular season, he manned the left side of the Bruins’ top pair before Hampus Lindholm partnered with Charlie McAvoy. The duo was among the league’s best at both ends of the ice, a factor that seemed to be forgotten as the season progressed and Grzelcyk’s play slipped. This drop in production was directly related to the upper body injury he suffered in January. The injury, which required offseason surgery and will keep him sidelined for the beginning of the 2022-23 season, directly inhibited his play.
Grzelcyk’s injury reared its ugly head, especially during the playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes. As his play continued to suffer, and the rest of the Bruins’ defensive corps returned to health, he found himself as a healthy scratch. This demotion left a sour taste in fans’ mouths and has sparked the trade debate. As an undersized, not overly physical player, he is a common target for fan frustration. However, as a mobile defenseman who can run a power play and contribute a competent defensive game, he is a unique commodity. There are 31 other teams who would be clamoring for his services, a fact that confirms the Bruins should keep him in the fold and continue to build around him, assuming the playoff lull was injury-related and he will regain his form for the upcoming season.
The most popular name on fans’ trade boards, Mike Reilly found himself as the odd man out under former head coach Bruce Cassidy. As his struggles continued, his ice time continued to shrink, fueling a self-repeating cycle. His game is based on his skating and puck-moving abilities, skills that improve with a level of comfort and routine that regular shifts deliver. Throughout the last season, he seemed to lack the confidence to act on these strengths of his game. This inaction hamstrung him and led to his seat in the press box to start the playoffs.
Following the series loss to the Canes, Reilly was among the walking wounded included in the end-of-season injury report. After undergoing ankle surgery, it is expected he should be ready for the start of the regular season. The question is, how long did this injury impact Reilly and can this surgery return him to the second-pair stalwart he was during the 2020-21 season?
Assuming Reilly can return to his previous level under a new coach and with a repaired ankle, he could prove to be an important bridge piece for the Bruins. While Grzelcyk and McAvoy are all but assured of missing the start of the season, he can eat valuable minutes as the fourth or fifth defenseman on the team. Also, his ability to play his off-side gives him positional flexibility that cannot be matched by the other names on this list.
Jack Ahcan is a name that could be looked to as a younger option to replace one of the names mentioned above. As the Bruins look for greater cap flexibility, his contract will carry a significantly lower average annual value (AAV) than either Reilly or Grzelcyk. For as appealing as this proposition is, Ahcan is not a known commodity, as he only has nine career NHL games under his belt. It is hard to know for sure what kind of player he will become with only nine games to study.
This uncertainty could dictate Ahcan’s move. If the Bruins decide their window for contention is rapidly closing, they may need to go all-in with a roster with the fewest question marks possible. I don’t think there is room in the salary cap for the Bruins to take this approach, but there is a line of thinking, thinking which should be clarified based on the head coach they decide to announce. If the roster is built with known options, Ahcan will have a tough case to say he is more known than the veteran Reilly.
Who Gets Moved?
If healthy, Grzelcyk would fetch the greatest return, while being the most valuable to the Bruins and least likely to move. In his current state, the team would be selling low on an asset they clearly value. As such, it does not make sense to trade him at this point.
Reilly is the name most folks want to ship out of town. I understand the frustration after his 2021-22 showing, but for me, he is a decent player. He may be overpaid, which is a perfectly acceptable reason to move him, but like Grzelcyk, based on his injury and poor recent season, he won’t fetch anything remotely close to his value at this time.
That leaves Ahcan then, right? As the youngest and cheapest of the options with enough jump in his offensive game and bite on the backend to draw a stray Torey Krug comparison here and there, he will have suitors around the league. However, just because there is interest does not mean he should be traded. With a thin back end, which is only getting older, having younger options to add into the mix will be key. Also, with the Reilly and Grzelcyk injuries clouding the beginning of the season, depth will be important as well.
That’s right, I would advise the Bruins to hold on to each piece, and not trade any of these players. Reilly should be moved in a perfect world, but the team should attempt to extract some level of return for him rather than moving on for nothing. Similarly, if he can return to form from his 2020-21 success, there is a benefit to having a puck-moving option on the back end alongside Grzelcyk. Eventually, Reilly will need to be moved, as his role is repetitive with Grzelcyk and Ahcan in the mix. For now, as much as some fans will bemoan it, I think holding onto these defensemen is in the Bruins’ best interest.
Vince Reilly covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Vince graduated from Grinnell College with a Bachelors in History and Political Science and earned a Masters in Sports Administration from Belmont University. He has worked in the Predators Front Office on Analytics and Operations, with Major League Baseball in Replay, and now with Tufts University as a Director of Hockey Analytics. Vince can always be found with a coffee in hand and he promises his sarcastic tone will always shine through his work.