One of the biggest keys to the unexpected and unbelievable success of the Boston Bruins this season has been the group of rookies that have burst onto the scene.
Charlie McAvoy looks like a once-in-a-generation type of talent, and is already a game-changer at the blue line that could lead the B’s defense for years to come. McAvoy is on the short but impressive list of Calder Trophy favorites, and probably should have been at the All-Star Game last weekend (unfortunately he wouldn’t have been able to participate).
Danton Heinen and Jake DeBrusk have been revelations, as the young duo has both eclipsed double-digits in goals scored while earning the trust of head coach Bruce Cassidy. Heinen had gone the entire season without a three-game scoreless streak until January 15-20, while DeBrusk has gelled with David Krejci on the second line since the veteran center has returned from various injuries.
But the biggest surprise out of the rookie class, and the one that has made such an impact that he has relegated another veteran to a constant stream of DNP-CD’s, is Matt Grzelcyk.
Grzelcyk was only supposed to be a short-term replacement for Torey Krug in late November, but his play during the last two months has all but removed any possibility that he would get sent back down to Providence at any point during the remainder of the regular season and hopefully a lengthy Stanley Cup Playoff run.
The Charlestown, MA native and former captain at Boston University entered training camp as a candidate for the seventh defenseman spot behind Zdeno Chara, McAvoy, Adam McQuaid, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, and Brandon Carlo. Grzelcyk did play in two games with Boston last season, but had a impressive rookie year in Providence, posting 32 points (26 assists) and a +13 rating in 70 games, along with three assists during the P-Bruins’ deep playoff run.
That being said, he was still ranked as the 10th-best prospect in the loaded Bruins’ system entering the season, but the higher-ups in both Providence and Boston clearly thought highly of his talents and potential.
“I love him, I think he’s a hockey player,” said Providence Bruins coach Jay Leach, who was with Grzelcyk all last season in the AHL. “He’s undersized but he’s not afraid to play defense. He has a nice stick. He obviously can skate and he’s obviously offensive. I think he’s got a lot of tools there.” – Boston Globe
For a guy that was trying to make an impression in camp and carve out a niche spot on a roster that was projected to be a fringe playoff contender, the third-round pick in 2015 has been a huge surprise and a vital part of the B’s current 18-game points streak.
Grzelcyk leads the team, and is second in the entire league for defensemen that have played more than 20 games, in an advanced NHL stat called Corsi. Corsi measures shot attempt differential – it’s normally seen as a percentage of the amount of shots taken while a player is on the ice compared to the amount allowed. A Corsi rating of 55% is seen as elite, and Grzelcyk’s Corsi rating through January 30th was 58.0% in 29 games with the Bruins. Only Cody Franson of the Chicago Blackhawks had a higher percentage of shots for and shots against while on the ice, with a 59.9% Corsi rating in 23 games.
The 24-year-old rookie is a +14 overall this season, and has forced his way into the lineup as Boston is 22-3-4 with him on the ice. Since November 22nd, the Bruins have allowed just 58 goals in 28 games, leading the league in points (46), wins (21) and goals allowed.
Another impressive note is that Grzelcyk spends most of his ice time with the B’s dominant first line of Patrice Bergeron (who remarkably has a higher Corsi rating than Grzelcyk), Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak on the bench. Grzelcyk has spent just 52:58 on the ice with that trio, and nearly 312 minutes of ice time with other line combinations. The Bruins have given up just eight even-strength goals with Grzelcyk on the ice in his 29 games, which would make you think that his spot in the starting lineup would be secured for the foreseeable future.
But according to his own words earlier this month in the Boston Herald, the rookie doesn’t feel the same way:
“I know it’s a cliché,” said the B’s rookie blueliner. “But the second you get too comfortable and start settling in, all of a sudden the next guy is working a little bit harder than you are. So I’m trying to make a conscious effort not to do that.”
That attitude may be the most impressive thing about Grzelcyk, and from watching and researching this team throughout the season, he’s definitely not the only person that feels the same way. The Bruins have installed the philosophy that everyone needs to keep working hard in order to keep their spot on this team. Grzelcyk’s spot was going to go back to Krug when he got healthy, and then it was going to go back to McQuaid when he returned earlier this month from a broken leg.
And yet here we sit starting the second half of the year with the rookie defenseman continuing to excel on a nightly basis. Cassidy and the B’s have to make a spot for him every game, and his continued success will bring him even more high-leverage opportunities like power play chances or shifts when the game is on the line.
Every successful team has its stars, but it is also full of surprises. The young core of the Boston Bruins have been fantastic this season, and while McAvoy and others get most of the props (no disrespect to them), Matt Grzelcyk has been a huge part of one of the best stories in the NHL.
Written by: Adam Belue (@albinomamba44)