Boston is set to enter this year’s training camp with a projected nine NHL-ready defensemen, but by the time the puck drops on the regular season on October 8, it must be whittled down to seven.
Eight of those defensemen played significant roles with Boston last season. Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg anchored the top two pairings through most of December, before Seidenberg went down with a season-ending ACL/MCL injury.
Additionally, Adam McQuaid was limited to 30 games and missed the entire postseason with various recurring leg injuries. He is expected to be 100 percent by the time camp opens for the 2014-15 season.
Especially after Seidenberg went down, younger players had no choice but to step up and fill the enormous void left by the 11-season veteran. The likes of Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski and Providence callup Kevan Miller filled in admirably -- but particularly Hamilton, whose game improved leaps and bounds as he spent the second half of the season paired with Chara.
As always, veteran Johnny Boychuk reliably filled out the group, having one of the best seasons of his career, powering his way through some occasional injuries to step up, claim a leadership role and register a career-high 23 points (5g, 18a) in 75 games.
Now, Providence mainstay David Warsofsky has been added to the mix, as he is expected to compete for an NHL spot during camp. Along with a healthy Seidenberg, that gives the B’s nine very capable D-men heading into camp, which officially opens on Sept. 18.
“Well, losing Seidenberg was big. The players that increased their roles will benefit as a result in the long run,” Chiarelli said earlier this summer. “Am I looking for another D? No — I think we have a good group right now, and I include Warsofsky because I believe he’s as close to an NHL player as you’re going to get from Providence.
“There’s nine defensemen we have -- NHL defensemen -- so we can’t go into the year with nine NHL defensemen. Seidenberg will be back healthy. McQuaid will be back healthy. So at some point, I have to do something there, but I’m in no hurry. It may be that we see how the preseason goes, with who’s mixing who’s matching with whom.”
The 2013-14 season obviously didn’t end the way the Bruins would have preferred — with a Game 7 home loss to Montreal in the second round — but the silver lining that emerged from last year’s playoff run is that it offered some much-needed postseason experience to players like Hamilton, Krug, Bartkowski and Miller.
“You've got to look at the opportunity that our young guys got, and got the opportunity to grow, which some young players — it takes years for them and their team to get an opportunity to get into the playoffs and get to at least the second round,” said Head Coach Claude Julien at the conclusion of the season. “So there’s some positives in there, but certainly some disappointments as well.”
As the next season approaches, mistakes will be forgotten, and in their place, a determination to simply do better next time.
“I think for myself, right now, I need to continue to get stronger and keep working on the things in my game, like my skating and skills and everything like that, that I can improve on,” Hamilton has said. “So I’m excited for the opportunity now to be able to do that, and I want to come back obviously a lot better.”
During the regular season, Boston’s defensive corps proved it could get the job done. The Bruins could not have claimed the Presidents’ Trophy without a handful of heroics from those four young D’s, which complemented the consistently hard-nosed play submitted by the likes of Chara and Boychuk.
Even in the playoffs, Hamilton emerged as one of Boston’s most consistent, most clutch players, tallying two goals and five assists in 12 games.
“I thought [the 2014 postseason] was a real coming-out for Dougie,” Chiarelli said. “He made mistakes, don’t get me wrong. But I think he had, by the end, a real good playoff. You saw confidence, you saw something that Claude has been working on — the defending. And he still has areas to improve on there, but he is really defending with more strength. He’s not always been good with the puck but he had a really solid, real solid playoff. As did Torey, while we’re talking about young defensemen. He played well, too.”
The numbers don’t fully tell the tale of how the 2014 postseason played out for Boston. Just like the numbers don’t call to light the occasional mistakes, they don’t call to light the time Hamilton split the defenders against Detroit and tallied what was perhaps his prettiest power-play goal of the season. They don’t call to light the time that Krug sent a backhand pass through the slot for a ready and waiting Jarome Iginla, who then scored a critical second-period goal at Joe Louis Arena.
“We had four guys on the back end that had played a full year in the lineup, and when you really look at what they have accomplished, from coming into the lineup and towards the end of the season, it’s amazing,” Chara said. “They can be really proud of their game, and they really stepped up. We couldn’t ask more from guys like Torey, and Dougie, and Kevan and obviously Bart. They played outstanding.”
As is the case for any team, any season, there were moments of exhilaration and moments of heartbreak. Where the B’s will benefit in 2014-15 is if their defensive corps takes those lessons and applies them to the future.
Fortunately for Bruins fans, all of those players are confident that they can do just that.
“There’s really nothing like playing playoff hockey,” Bartkowski said. “The way you have to prepare and be ready for every game, forget the things you did wrong but learn from them and then be ready for the next game — any experience helps with it.”
As for who will be on Boston’s Opening Night roster, that isn’t worth thinking about. Not yet. That would contradict the credo that led the Bruins to so much success last season: Take it one day at a time.
“I think it’s only just a hindrance to worry about where you’re going to end up and all that,” Bartkowski said. “You just prepare for what you can, and the team you’re on, and if something happens, it happens. It’s out of our hands, so like I said, there’s really no reason for me to worry about it.
“I just try to focus on my summer workouts and being as ready as I can for next season.”