The Canucks front office has a very extensive scouting report on Matt Bartkowski, as both GM Jim Benning and assistant GM John Weisbrod watched the smooth-skating defenseman develop as a member of the Boston Bruins over the past few seasons. However, many Canucks fans are likely unfamiliar with the Pittsburgh native.
Before last season, Bartkowski looked to be on his way to establishing himself as a steady top-four defenseman at the NHL level. However, he took a step sideways in 2014-15, quickly finding himself in the doghouse of Boston head coach Claude Julien. When watching Bartkowski play, it isn’t hard to see what the 6-1 blue liner brings to the table – mobility, tenacity, and transition play. While his skating prowess hasn’t translated over to offensive production at the NHL level (Bartkowski is still in search of his first career NHL regular season goal), he will definitely help Vancouver in the transition game – an area that was exposed during the first round loss to Calgary.
Bartkowski does have a goal at the NHL level under his belt, and it came in the postseason a few years ago:
Let’s go back to Bartkowski’s 2014-15 campaign in Boston. He finished the season with just four assists in 47 games, and was a healthy scratch for extended periods of time. His lack of playing time definitely came as a surprise to both himself and to the Bruins – he was a mainstay in the team’s top four defensive rotation just one season before. In 2013-14, Bartkowski averaged close to 20 minutes of ice time per night while tallying 18 assists and a plus-22 rating in 64 games. Obviously most Bruins defensemen tend to have solid plus-minus ratings since they are such a strong even strength team, but Bartkowski’s numbers across the board indicated that he had established himself as a reliable 20-minute-a-night guy.
So what happened last season? Here’s Bartkowski’s take, which he shared with the Province last week:
“I got in the doghouse and had to crawl my way out of it. It puts you in a tough spot. It doesn’t matter how many times it happens, it’s always going to be in the back of your head. But if you’re going to make a mistake, make it moving your feet or moving up on the fly. You can’t play passive.”
It all comes back to a loss of confidence. We have seen the same thing happen to defensemen here in Vancouver recently (more on that soon). The 27-year-old blue liner has plenty of motivation heading into the 2015-16 campaign, as he was only able to secure a one-year deal this summer. Perhaps Bartkowski wanted the opportunity to earn a larger contract next summer, but his job security beyond this season is nonexistent. He was essentially cast aside by the Bruins, who spent parts of five seasons developing him into an NHL defenseman.
As mentioned already, don’t expect Bartkowski to step in and light the lamp with any sort of regularity from the back end. Sometimes we have unreasonable expectations for defensemen that can skate well to put up huge offensive numbers, but skating with the puck and making plays with it in the offensive zone are two very different things. In terms of finding a player comparable for Bartkowski, a recent former Canuck (and another former Panther…) comes to mind – Keith Ballard. Bartkowski doesn’t skate quite as well as Ballard, but he has the same ability to get the puck up the ice quickly. He also uses his mobility to close gaps and to cover in the defensive zone – two areas that the Canucks will be counting on him this season. Vancouver will definitely be hoping to find better luck with Bartkowski than they did with Ballard, but that was another case of a player finding his way into a one-way doghouse.
Boston gave Bartkowski a similar one-year deal last season and he was unable to parlay it into a solid role with the club. He now finds himself playing in Vancouver, where he will guaranteed an opportunity to start in the top six. And, as we see time and time again with injuries on the back end, he will have many opportunities to play top-four minutes throughout the year, too.
Bartkowski knows what he needs to do to be successful – anchor the third pairing, contribute offense when he can, and play steady hockey for 15-18 minutes per game. Welcome to Vancouver.