Compared to other areas of the team, the Bruins' defense has undergone the least amount of change in the off-season. Five of the expected top six blueliners were on last year's team.
But that one change — new Seattle Kraken Jeremy Lauzon out, free agent signee Derek Forbort in — will have some sort of ripple effect. Matt Grzelcyk could be the one to feel it the most.
Last year, Grzelcyk had settled in nicely on the top pairing with Charlie McAvoy as the two former Boston University Terriers deftly moved the puck out of their own end and helped the team quickly transition into offense.
But in the B's rugged playoff series against Lou Lamoriello's New York Islanders, the physicality took its toll on the B's back end, no doubt leading to the acquisition of the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Forbort (the loss of the gritty Lauzon surely pushed them in that direction as well).
Coach Bruce Cassidy has already talked about taking a look at Forbort with McAvoy, at least situationally, which along with the re-signing of Mike Reilly could move Grzelcyk to the third pair with Connor Clifton. We shall see how it shakes out when the team convenes for training camp later this month, but Gzelcyk said he's ready for whatever comes at him.
"When you come in each year you always feel like you're competing for a spot no matter what," said Grzelcyk at the team's annual golf tournament. "I feel like I was really comfortable playing with Charlie, but however they want to use me, if they want me to be more of a third pairing guy and add more offensively, I feel like I pride myself on being able to face challenges and learn on the way. Whatever the teams needs me to do is what I'm going to try to do."
At 5-foot-9, 174 pounds, Grzelcyk has always been challenged in certain areas of the game, but he knows where his strengths are. For the most part, he's able to retrieve pucks and move it quickly before getting walloped. He was able to survive just fine against Washington Capitals' nasty forward corps in the first round win last spring.
But the heat rises in the playoffs. In the B's 2019 run to the Stanley Cup Final, Grzelcyk was able to make it through three tough rounds, including a physical one against the Columbus Blue Jackets. But in Game 2 of the finals, he was knocked out for the next four games of the series on a high hit from Oskar Sundqvist. It took a dirty play to do it — Sundqvist was suspended for a game for the hit — but those things tend to happen in the playoffs. The loss of Grzelcyk was arguably the turning point in that series.
Players like Colorado's Cale Makar and Vancouver's Quinn Hughes continue to prove that caveman qualities are not a prerequisite to play in the NHL. But the re-emergence of big defenders like the Isles' Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield, has some folks pining for more beef on the back end.
Grzelcyk pays that no mind.
"I just try to let my play do the talking. There's nothing I can really do to change anyone's opinion other than what I'm going to do on the ice," said Grzelcyk. "I think I'm going to just try to play my game as best I can. Obviously when the playoffs come, the intensity gets kicked up a notch for sure, so you have to step up your game and be willing to go to those dirty areas."
Grzelcyk is coming off a season in which numerous injuries — not all related to his small stature — limited him to just 37 games in the 56-game schedule. He said he changes some of his training methods, opting to do his offseason work under the guidance of the team staff at Warrior Arena instead of where he's usually trained at his alma mater BU, to focus on some "corrective stuff" while training with workout fiend Brad Marchand.
"Just trying to keep up with him the best I can," joked Grzelcyk.
Heading into the season, staying healthy is a top priority for Grzelcyk.
"It was little tough for me early not being able to be out there and fighting to stay healthy," said Grzelcyk, whose absences impeded him from solidifying a spot on the top power-play unit. "It's never a position you want to be in but I felt a lot more comfortable down the stretch. Going into this year, I want to remain healthy and play as many games as possible. Last year, I tried to take a step in building my offensive game a little bit and making sure I'm getting up in the play a little bit more and get used to playing a little bit different matchups. Last year, I was learning on the fly a little bit. This year, I know what to expect a little bit and hopefully can continue where I left off."