By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There are several assumptions the Bruins will be banking on this offseason as they construct their defense corps for next season.
They have to assume Zdeno Chara, now 40 pushing 41, won’t fall off a cliff in terms of his ability to play top-pair minutes and be productive. They have to assume that Kevan Miller, if he’s still around after the expansion draft, can play the way he did in the postseason, carrying the puck effectively and defending well. It will be assumed that Torey Krug’s ascension into more than an offensive defenseman will continue and that Charlie McAvoy’s six-game run in the playoffs was a preview of even greater things ahead rather than a slide back into a slow period of growth.
Then there’s Brandon Carlo, the rookie defenseman who not only earned an NHL job straight out of junior hockey but also played all 82 games and spent all but a few segments of games paired with Chara and on the penalty kill regularly. The Bruins have to assume they’ll get more of the same, or better, from Carlo if this Bruins reload is to continue on the correct trajectory.
Carlo can’t afford a sophomore slump because the Bruins already learned what life without him was like when he was unable to play against Ottawa in the postseason because of a concussion caused by an Alex Ovechkin hit in the Bruins’ regular-season finale against Washington. The Bruins missed Carlo both at 5-on-5 and shorthanded, and he missed out on gaining the valuable experience young players like McAvoy, David Pastrnak and Frank Vatrano gained during their first run through the playoffs.
But Carlo believes he soaked in enough that he won’t be shocked when he’s on the ice next spring with the Bruins in the postseason.
“That’s the kind of atmosphere you want to play in, that’s what we play the first 82 games of the year for,” Carlo said about watching the playoffs at TD Garden. “So it was hard for me to see that but at the same time really good for me to see that as well because it’s that excitement that you look for.”
Carlo had 16 points (six goals, 10 assists) as a rookie, but more importantly neither coaching staff, despite contemplating scratching him at sooner points in the season, ever decided he was struggling enough to come out of the lineup. Carlo showed a propensity for shaking off mistakes within games, and for bouncing back after poor games with improved play in his next outing. That may be a rare skill for a player who didn’t turn 20 until November, but Carlo was always considered a bit of a steal when the Bruins drafted him in the second round (37th overall) in 2015 and his time in the WHL and international play clearly matured him.
Coach Bruce Cassidy said several times during the season that Carlo might have more to give the Bruins offensively after he gains more experience and maybe even earns power-play time. An improved, well-rounded Carlo could help general manager Don Sweeney’s flexibility in trades related to forming a defense corps that could do more than just last six games in the first round of the postseason.
Having passed several tests throughout his career, Carlo’s next challenge will be avoiding the sophomore slump. NHL history is littered with the careers of defensemen who started hot and flamed out, even needing some time out of the lineup or in the AHL. He knows his summer work has to change in order to meet the challenge of remaining on the Bruins’ top pair or being on a second pair if the Bruins opt for the Chara-McAvoy combination.
“After playing in the NHL you kind of realize how strong these guys are,” Carlo said. “You kind of have a goal of where you want to be and how you want to feel against them. So it’ll be a little bit different, I kind of know the ins and outs of how strong these guys are in this league and it’s definitely motivation. I want to keep my job, so it’s a big thing for me to do and have a good summer.”
A lot will depend on McAvoy’s continued improvement and whether he can drive a defense pair on his own as a rookie, but Carlo will also have some say in where in the lineup and how much he plays based on how improved he is when he arrives in Boston in the fall.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.