Bruins

Why Bruce Cassidy is switching up his top two defensive pairs

"Gryz right now is off a little bit."

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Charlie McAvoy, a precociously adept player since he started playing at age 4, is beginning his fifth NHL season.

The first quarter of any given season often provides coaches unique opportunities with their lineup structures. And surely, Bruce Cassidy has used his philosophy for his defensive pairings and forward trios outside of the top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak.

Two days removed from an ugly 4-0 loss to the red-hot Calgary Flames, Cassidy tweaked his top two blue-line pairings during Tuesday’s practice. Boston’s sixth-year bench boss broke up the struggling middle pair of Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo and the top duo featuring Derek Forbort and Charlie McAvoy. Forbort and Grzelcyk swapped their left-line assignments while Cassidy kept the Mike Reilly-Jakub Zboril pair intact ahead of the Bruins’ Thanksgiving eve trip to Buffalo.

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Cassidy hasn’t shied away from maneuvering his defensive pairs in-game. He’ll often turn to Grzelcyk and McAvoy for an offensive spark when the Bruins face a late-game deficit. When time ticks in shutdown situations, he’ll turn to Forbort and Carlo to help secure a Boston victory.

Even with Grzelcyk and Carlo’s cold streaks, why not return to a familiar top pair? And why not use Carlo and Forbort as a regular 5v5 pair and top penalty kill duo?

“Gryz right now is off a little bit, and I think playing with Charlie will help him get back on track,” Cassidy said following Tuesday’s on-ice training session at Warrior Ice Arena. “I think the Gryz-Carlo [pairing] was just average, so that’s one of the reasons.”

Barring trades or injuries, McAvoy and Carlo will remain in their respective first and second pairing roles on the right side. As for the remaining assignments? Well, that’s an ongoing concern.

Forbort and McAvoy developed decent chemistry with each other in 5v5 play. The former even provided an unusual scoring outburst with four goals on the season, doubling his previous career-high. The latter’s offensive instincts shined further with a shutdown Forbort beside him.

The Bruins witnessed growing camaraderie with Forbort and McAvoy. But now they’re returning to the well, hoping Grzelcyk’s attacking rhythm returns in a top-pair role with his fellow former Boston University teammate.

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“I think we have a lot of chemistry and that’s dating back to college, obviously,” Grzelcyk said of his chemistry with McAvoy. “When I’m out there with him, I’ve kind of had that attack mentality. So hopefully, I have a little more of that playing with him and can continue that for the rest of the year.”

Grzelcyk and McAvoy became one of the league’s better 5v5 pairs whenever Cassidy used them a year ago. They’ve seen some production from the Forbort-Carlo pairing in their brief moments of 5v5 play as well. The Bruins have outscored their opponents 5-0 in 33 minutes of using the Forbort-Carlo pairing at full strength.

Carlo performed well whenever he partnered with a fellow shutdown defenseman. He learned from one of the best in Zdeno Chara during his 2016-17 rookie season. An extended assignment with Forbort could only help Carlo find his rhythm again as a more fluid schedule awaits the Bruins.

“I think Brandon played some of his best hockey with Zee [Chara] in a shutdown role, so he can focus on that,” Cassidy said of his decision to pair Carlo with Forbort. “I know it’s been a few years, but he can do that well and he can get back to where he needs to be.

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“We play a similar style of game. So it should be pretty easy to know what each other is doing out there and what they’re thinking,” Forbort added. “We just have to make the simple plays and be hard to play against. I’ve gotten quite a few shifts with him when we’re up a couple of goals…so we should be fine.”

No matter the pairings, the Bruins blue-line will be fine — as long as they keep the puck out of the net.

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