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  • Midseason report cards: Bruins defensemen and goalies

    Ryan Ames February 4, 2022

    The grades are in for the Boston Bruins’ defensemen and goalies as we head into the halfway point of the NHL season. Before diving any further, check out Tim Rosenthal’s assessment of the Bruins forwards.

    Now, onto the grades in Part 2 of our midseason report cards.

    Charlie McAvoy

    Let’s begin with an easy one.

    There’s no argument regarding Charlie McAvoy’s status as Boston’s best defenseman. The fifth-year pro is currently fifth on the team in scoring (28 points), logs more ice time than any other Bruins skater (24:24 average time-on-ice) and quarterbacks the fourth-best power play in the NHL (26 percent).

    The Long Beach, New York native, has his eyes set on a career season. He already matched his season-high in goals with seven and is four points shy of his career best with half the season to go.

    Standing 6-foot-1 and 206 pounds, McAvoy also knows how to use his body and has showcased his ability to lay down thunderous hits a few times this season already.

    A brief stint on injured reserve in January left McAvoy a bit rusty for a handful of games following his return, but the 2016 first-round pick has settled in nicely since then.

    Grade: A

    Matt Grzelcyk

    Grzelcyk is a really good defenseman that’s often overlooked because his style doesn’t yield crazy offensive numbers.

    More of a puck-moving blueliner, Grzelcyk can find teammates in transition with ease and is better than any Bruins defender at twisting out of high-pressure situations.

    At his best when paired with McAvoy on the top unit, the former Boston University captain has bounced around the backend this season. No matter his role, Grzelcyk still found consistency on both ends of the ice.

    Grzelcyk’s highlight during the first half of the season came on Jan. 10 when he became the first Boston defenseman since Ray Bourque in 1994 to tally five points in a game.

    Standing at 5-foot-9, Grzelcyk hardly makes a physical impact. However, his quickness and high hockey IQ makes him the Bruins’ second most important defenseman.

    Grade: B+

    Brandon Carlo

    Recency bias may be playing into this grade a bit more than most, but Carlo hasn’t looked the best of late.

    Boston’s biggest defenseman (6-foot-6) hasn’t looked comfortable on the second unit this season. He’s had a rough go of it over the last three games leading up to the All-Star break, tallying a minus-1 rating in each outing.

    The Bruins count on Carlo to be a menace in the defensive zone and prevent opposing forwards from getting cozy in front of the net. There are times the Colorado Springs native personifies that rugged style, but it seems like it should happen more for a guy with his size.

    On the offensive side, Carlo has six points in 41 games. However, he’s not asked to contribute on the scoresheet nearly as often as the other defensemen, so his numbers aren’t all that problematic.

    Cleaning up his play in the defensive zone is likely Carlo’s top priority in the second half.

    Grade: C

    Mike Reilly

    Reilly burst onto the scene in Boston last season as his mobility and offensive instincts appeared to compliment the Bruins style nicely. Fast forward to this year and Reilly’s offense continues to trend in the right direction with a career-high four goals to his name already.

    Although a solid player, it sometimes looks like the Bruins ask too much out of Reilly. The 28-year-old isn’t the most reliable commodity in the defensive zone. As the skater getting the fifth-most ice time, you’d like to see a little more consistency.

    It doesn’t help that Reilly hasn’t stuck with one pairing either. Initially, Bruce Cassidy and the coaching staff thought that Reilly and Carlo would make up the second unit. But Derek Forbort and Urho Vaakanainen have each spent time there, forcing Reilly down the defensive depth chart or out of the lineup completely.

    Reilly would likely thrive in a third-pairing role with expectations fairly low. But since he’s asked to perform top-four duties more often than not, other teams eventually figure out how to expose his weaknesses.

    Grade: C

    Derek Forbort

    Early on in the season, the Forbort experiment looked like a failure. The off-season free-agent signee wasn’t adjusting well and, simply put, looked lost out there alongside McAvoy on the first pairing.

    Over time though, the seven-year pro settled in and has carved out an essential role on Boston’s blueline. Now that he’s not seeing the best the opposition has to offer nearly as much, Forbort has simplified his game and it’s paying off.

    Third on the team in blocked shots (48), Forbort has logged some key shifts late in games and appears to be earning Cassidy’s trust in that regard. The 6-foot-4, 219-pounder is also on pace for 18 points and a career-high eight goals.

    Grade: C+

    Urho Vaakananien

    Vaakananien has left a lasting impression despite only suiting up in 13 games this season.

    Drafted with the 18th overall back in 2017, Vaakananien took some time to gain confidence in the minors, but the Finnish blueliner appears ready for a full-time role in the NHL.

    Like Grzelcyk, Vaakananien skates well and makes great outlet passes in transition. While he’s still searching for his first NHL goal, the rookie defenseman has impressed on the defensive side, forcing Cassidy to keep him in the lineup.

    Unfortunately, the 23-year-old exited Tuesday night’s game with the Seattle Kraken following a hit from Yanni Gourde. Cassidy provided no further update following Boston’s 3-2 victory.

    Grade: B

    Not graded: Connor Clifton, Jakub Zboril

    Tuukka Rask

    Looking back, the Bruins should’ve eased Rask back into the fold better than they did.

    Granted, they signed Rask to a PTO intending to have him start at least one game for the Providence Bruins before Covid shutdown that opportunity. Yet, the recent events proved the Bruins rushed Rask over the last couple of weeks.

    In four starts this season, Rask is 2-2 with a 4.28 goals-against average and a .844 save percentage…. not great. Add in Rask is currently nursing a minor injury and things haven’t exactly gone to plan since he inked a contract back in Jan.

    Rask followed up wins against the Philadelphia Flyers and Winnipeg Jets with ugly outings against the Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks, in which he allowed five goals in each contest.

    Clearly, the 2014 Vezina winner has some ground to make up, but the Bruins are better with Rask in the fold as he is the only netminder with any playoff experience. But the Bruins will likely count on Rask again once the postseason rolls around if the 34-year old returns to his usual self.

    Grade: C-

    Linus Ullmark

    A stellar month of January signified Ullmark’s worth to this year’s Bruins team. The lanky goalie went 9-1-1 after earning seven wins through the first three months of the season.

    The former Buffalo Sabre is a bit erratic in the crease. One minute he seems calm, cool and collected, and the next, he’s flailing around. Yet, his unique style has worked for the most part so far.

    Given Rask’s rocky return, Ullmark has provided a much-needed stabilizing presence in net, thus keeping the Bruins in a comfortable position in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

    Ullmark has posted a 16-6-1 record with a 2.64 GAA and a .913 SV% in 24 appearances.

    Grade: B+

    Jeremy Swayman

    Swayman became the odd man out after Boston’s all-time winningest goalie returned mid-season.

    The young gun looked really comfortable between the pipes for the Bruins this season but was assigned to Providence last month to make room for Rask’s return.

    Swayman is 16-8-2 with a 2.31 GAA and a .916 SV% and is the only Boston goalie to record a shutout this season. Coming off a solid 2020-21 campaign, the former Maine backstopper has lost consecutive starts just once and strung together four consecutive victories in November.

    Regardless of what happens this season, Swayman has provided a bright glimpse of the Bruins’ future in net.

    Grade: B+

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