The Bruins knew they would lean heavily on Brandon Carlo in a transitional year on the back end. The Colorado Springs native ascended to the second longest-tenured Boston defensemen after Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug departed respectively for Washington and St. Louis in the offseason.
Carlo gained significant knowledge of NHL life skating with Chara and Krug during his first four seasons. He adapted well in different assignments next to a big shutdown guy in Chara and an offensive-minded blue-liner in Krug.
Now he’s one of the anchors on the right-side of the blue-line along with Charlie McAvoy. Unlike the former Boston University standout — at least up until Jeremy Lauzon’s injury during Sunday’s 7-3 win over the Flyers in Lake Tahoe — Carlo found himself skating with a rotating door of fellow defensemen on the second pair.
Carlo began his season paired with another dynamic puck-moving blue-liner Matt Grzelcyk. The Charlestown native frequently finds himself on the injury list dealing with a lower-body ailment for most of the year. In his absence, Connor Clifton, John Moore and Urho Vaakanainen skated with Carlo on the second defensive unit.
Bruce Cassidy tried to find a match for Carlo. Yet, the 2015 second-round selection adapted well to complimenting his various younger partners on the left side throughout a unique 2021 campaign.
“We’ve asked him to play his game,” Cassidy said. “Obviously this year there are some younger guys on the left side, and the guys a few years ago that were the pupils have to have a little more of a teacher mentality with these younger guys…and Brandon has done that.”
His shutdown prowess never wavered amid the turnover to his left. Cassidy’s trust in Carlo kept him in significant roles, from closing out games in the final minute to one of the primary penalty killers.
With Krug’s departure and injuries to Grzelcyk and Jakub Zboril, the Bruins found themselves lacking a significant puck-mover on the back end at times. Though his three points on the season aren’t anything to write home about statistically, Carlo chipped in for timely offensive moments during some of Boston’s thrilling come-from-behind wins.
His defensive performance so far has him on a path toward a career year. On Sunday in Lake Tahoe, the Bruins rewarded Carlo’s growth from a student to a young role model when they handed him a temporary alternate captain role in David Krejci’s absence.
“It was amazing. That was probably the biggest honor of my life, to walk in the locker room that day and see an ‘A’ on my sweater,” Carlo said of the honor. “It means so much to me that this group and the management and everyone can trust me to take on that responsibility. It definitely warmed my heart and gave me an extra boost of confidence, knowing that I’m contributing to this team in a leadership aspect. And I want to continue to grow in that regard.”
“There’s a group of them that you can put in that basket. I think Brandon is in there, I think David Pastrnak is in there and I think Charlie Coyle is in there,” Cassidy said of the non-letter Boston leadership core. “That’s what you want; you want guys that grow from within [the organization] and develop that leadership skill…We feel Brandon is one of those guys, and he’s earned it.
“He’s young, but he’s been in the league and he conducts himself as a true pro very well. I think the guys all look up to him, so I thought it was a good choice. But, like I said, there are a handful of guys in that mix that are growing and evolving into that type of player with a leadership attribute. We just happened to pick Brandon that day. I thought he earned it and going forward we’ll see how it plays out if the situation dictates again.”
Amid all the moving parts on the back-end, the Bruins sit atop the league on the penalty kill (with a 93 percent success rate) while allowing the fewest shots on goal per game (25.1) and the third-lowest goals per contest (2.25).
The Bruins used nine different defensemen this season. Each blue-liner contributed to the early-season defensive success in their own right. But Carlo’s steady performance and added leadership provide a significant element during this transitional season on D.
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