When Dennis Seidenberg tore his right ACL and MCL on December 27, the Bruins weren’t interested in bringing in another player via trade to replace him. As General Manager Peter Chiarelli has said, that replacement player simply wasn’t out there.
Instead, Seidenberg’s injury — while devastating — was the perfect opportunity to allow Boston’s corps of young defensemen to step up. And fortunately for all parties involved, they all took that opportunity and ran with it.
Dating back to this year’s training camp, Boston had an abundance of young D’s and not enough spots in the lineup. That often left Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski battling for playing time. Injuries to Seidenberg and veteran blueliner Adam McQuaid meant Providence Bruin Kevan Miller got the recall, which eventually evolved into a permanent stay with the Bruins, as he signed a two-year, one-way deal in January.
And once again, that meant too many guys and too few slots in the lineup.
Other players may have crumbled under the pressure. Not these players. As Torey Krug put it, their mindset stayed simple as the competition increased: “You have to focus on your game and bring it every single night, or else someone’s going to take your spot in the lineup. And you’re going to hurt the team.”
That’s not to say that it was easy — to arrive ready to play every night, knowing that they might be the healthy scratch, or to stay solely focused on their own game, knowing that they were competing for playing time against the guy sitting in the next locker stall.
“Players today need to know where they stand, and there was a time a long time ago where you didn’t have a conversation with a coach — you just kind of sucked it up, and the next time you were in, you just played,” said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien. “But as with everything else, this world changes, as does the game and your approach with players. Right now, I think communication is a big thing between players and coaches. And our young players sometimes sat out not because they weren’t playing well, but because we had a bunch of young players, and we want to keep everybody going. You make sure that they know that so they don’t start questioning themselves.”
The Bruins’ performance this year speaks for itself. They ended the regular season with the best record in the league and the Presidents’ Trophy in hand. Post-Olympics, they went on a tear, going 17-3-5 over the final 25 games of the season. Clearly, the young defensemen did something right — instead of focusing the competition, they instead chose to focus on simply playing well, playing hard and leaving the rest up to the coaching staff.
“I think everyone kind of deserves to play, so it’s just a matter of — I don’t know if it’s worrying about the competition and things like that. It’s more just worrying about yourself and doing your best and making sure you yourself are playing your best, and that’s all you can control,” said Dougie Hamilton. “So for me it was just, after the Olympics, I really focused on the last stretch of 25 games or whatever it was, and just getting ready for the playoffs now. And I think it was just about working hard and doing what the coaches wanted and getting better.”
The Bruins have always been primarily focused on playing their game and leaving all of the distractions behind, and this young group of defensemen represents a microcosm of that approach.
“I think there’s some times when it’s hard, when nobody knows who’s playing and you could sometimes find out after pregame skate, or before the game, or like kind of warmup time [whether you’re playing],” Hamilton said. “So I think that’s a little bit of a different experience, when you don’t really know and you’re coming to the rink and you’re not sure if you’re playing and a lot of stuff like that going on. So I think that’s a little bit tough on a couple guys, but I think it also is a learning experience where you have to be always ready and ready to play, or ready not to play.”
Last year, Hamilton was a 19-year-old former first-round draft pick getting his first taste of NHL action. This year, he arrived ready to stake his claim, and not only did he do it, but he has been primarily paired with captain Zdeno Chara — which meant that he was going to be playing big minutes against the opponent’s top line every single night.
“He's just getting stronger as a man, as a young man,” Chiarelli said. “He’s getting more confident with his body and with his strength and, you know, his play with the puck on the offensive side of the blueline has been terrific. His little in-tight plays, starting to break out, which are so important in a smooth breakout — they've been good, and they've been getting better. He can skate out of trouble. But for me, the biggest thing is his defending and his strength on the puck, and it's gotten so much better. It still has to get better, because I project him to be a top defenseman, so he's on the right track.”
When you’re talking about young players, all of whom want to play and all of whom are willing to work hard in order to play, it can be difficult to manage both expectations and disappointment. Integrating the Bruins’ young defensemen into the lineup this season wasn’t easy, but it was something Julien managed seamlessly.
“With the youth [on the blue line], they’re going to make mistakes, and it’s about fixing those mistakes and at the same time, not ruining the confidence of the players,” Chiarelli said. “We had one or two periods where we were scratching one of those three, and you bruise their egos and they’re young, and it can go sideways. So I think [Julien] has done a real good job. We had the luxury a little bit of these players who played the year before in real tense times in the playoffs. But the staff — Claude and the assistants — they’ve done a good job. We’ve had a lot of discussions over the year regarding the integration of these guys, and that only speaks well for the future, to have these players, at this age, performing the way they’ve been performing.”
Learning to play a top-six role isn’t easy, especially when you’re young, especially when you don’t have a lot of NHL experience. But when you’re in the hunt for a playoff spot, there’s no time for growing pains.
Fortunately, this group hasn’t had many of them.
During the 2012-13 season, Bartkowski made quite a few trips from Providence to Boston and back. Heading into the postseason, he had just 20 NHL games on his resume, and he was accustomed to playing about 13 minutes per game.
In the playoffs, that changed. Veteran Andrew Ference went down with an injury, which meant that Bartkowski had to step in, joining Krug and Hamilton on a young, inexperienced blue line that first had to dispatch Toronto in seven games before taking on New York. Bartkowski played in seven games during those first two rounds, averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time and solidifying himself as part of fearless young D corps that sent the Rangers packing in five games.
Like Bartkowski, Krug came into this season already well accustomed to performing under pressure: Last year, he was getting on a bus with his fellow Providence Bruins, getting ready to play in Game 3 of a playoff series against Wilkes-Barre, when his phone rang. He looked at the display and saw that it was Bruins Assistant General Manager Don Sweeney.
He was being called up to play in his fourth career NHL game, and it just happened to be in the second round of the playoffs against New York. He didn’t really have a choice, other than to come in and blow everyone away.
“I remember being told to play my game and be confident, and the confidence that the coaching staff showed in me — I wasn’t just going in there and playing 12 minutes a night. I was playing big minutes, for me anyway — 17, 18 minutes. That was big time, at the time,” he said. “So it’s fun, just coming to the rink and worrying about winning hockey games. That’s important, and that’s what makes the game fun.”
Krug famously scored four goals in that five-game series, becoming a cult hero to Bruins fans and symbolizing the gritty, fearless style of hockey the Bruins have come to be known for.
“We’ve got to play with that swagger, that confidence,” Krug said. “That’s what makes our team special, is when we rise up to the occasion and we use that confidence to our advantage.”
Krug has carried over that swagger into this season, his first full season in the NHL. He has played in 79 games, scoring 14 goals with 26 assists for 40 points with a plus-18 rating. He has cemented himself as a key component of a Bruins power play that has improved leaps and bounds over last year. And he, like his fellow young defensemen, has managed to do it when playing time has been far from guaranteed.
“You want to make sure that you focus on yourself, and that you fine-tune your game, and that you’re one of the top-six defensemen that is in the lineup for playoffs,” he said. “That’s the main goal.”
One of many things that all three of these defensemen have in common is that they’ve all been able to step up, on the biggest of stages, and prove their worth. They did it last year during the playoffs, they did it this season during a post-Olympics surge when pressure was at its highest, and they have every intention of doing it again this postseason.
“When you lose your big guns, it can be tough on your team and tough on the coaches,” Krug said. “And mentally, I think guys can say they weren’t worried, but I’m sure there was a little bit of wondering what was going to happen. But [the coaches] showed so much confidence in every single guy -- it’s been amazing.”
“They put guys out in big situations, whether it’s [Miller] in the last minute on the penalty kill, or Bart shutting down the other team’s top line, and obviously Dougie’s been on the other team’s top line all year. They show a lot of confidence in us, and I think that’s very important for our development, and obviously for our team, it’s been great.”