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Bruins make defensive ace of Wideman

by John McGourty /
One of the most important reasons for the Boston Bruins' success this season has been the continued development of defenseman Dennis Wideman, who is sixth among NHL defensemen in scoring and tops among all skaters in the plus-minus category.

Wideman is fifth among NHL defensemen with 12 goals and 13th with 25 assists for 37 points. He is fourth in scoring on the Bruins.

Knowledgeable hockey people aren't surprised Wideman is having success offensively, but his defensive excellence results from the confluence of Wideman's determination, coach Claude Julien's system, assistant coach Craig Ramsay's teaching, his teammates' help and the Bruins' goaltending. Wideman was minus-31 four seasons ago as a rookie with the St. Louis Blues and minus-7 through 55 games in 2006-07 when he was traded to Boston for Brad Boyes on Feb. 27, 2007. He was minus-3 in 20 games for the Bruins.

He improved to plus-11 last season, Julien's first with the Bruins, and is plus-31 this season. Wideman, 25, got caught up ice too often and chronically was fooled by fakes and blind-side passes. Julien and Ramsay went to work on him and he benefited from playing alongside veteran Andrew Ference.

"I think I started getting better my second season in St. Louis, and the coaching here has been great," Wideman said. "I had to focus more on learning to play within this system, when to rush and when not to. I've also grown and gotten stronger.

"I played most of last season and early this season with Andrew Ference and I think we work well together. Then Andrew got hurt and missed almost two months so I played with just about everyone else here -- Zdeno Chara, Mark Stuart and Matt Hunwick. Now, Andrew's back and the defense has the experience of being able to play with everyone else. ... As a team lately, we've come together and we've been playing quite well as a group defensively. Plus, you play with a lot of confidence knowing Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez are playing so well."

A lack of size and risk-taking hurt Wideman's draft prospects when he played for Sudbury and London in the Ontario Hockey League. He was taken in the eighth round of the 2002 Entry Draft by the Buffalo Sabres but they never signed him. He played two more seasons of juniors and signed as a free agent with St. Louis in 2004.

"I wasn't even drafted in my Draft year," Wideman said. "But think back -- that was before the lockout and the changes in the rules. I was 176 pounds in my Draft year and NHL teams wanted big guys who could move people away from the net. I wasn't that kind of a defenseman."

Chara has taken Wideman under his wing, sitting next to him in the dressing room and amidst veterans Shane Hnidy, Ference and Aaron Ward. Stuart said "the system" is a frequent topic of conversation.

"When you have a system, you know where to be and what to expect from the other guy," Stuart said. "There's room for some creativity. You can't have your system dictate everything you do. Things arise that you have to make a play. Like any system, if everyone is buying in it makes it easier, and it makes it easier to make plays."

Stuart likes playing with Wideman because of his superior passing skills.

"He's so good with the puck," said Stuart. "When he's going back for the puck, you know he's going to try to make a play. He rarely just throws the puck around the boards or tries to get rid of it. He uses his partner well. When you give him the puck, you can count on him to make the play. We talk a lot as defensemen, all the time. It makes a huge difference, especially when you are moving partners around. You have to talk, and talk to your goaltender. Talking to the goaltender is one of the biggest things.

"There was never any question about his skill but there some question about his risk-taking. He's dialed that down a bit to the extent that he's a very good puck mover and a very good passer. He's an important part of our team."
-- Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, on Dennis Wideman

"Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez are somewhat similar, but they do some things differently. They are different in the way they play the puck. We're trying to get the same thing done with both of them. When the communication is there, it usually works out well."

The biggest difference between the early Wideman and the player today is a dramatic decline in pinching at the offensive blue line. It often led to odd-man rushes against.

"The Bruins don't pinch a lot," said Bruins broadcaster Bob Beers. "They pick their times. He pinches at the right time and when he does, you notice because he gets the puck."

Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli said Wideman has unique skating and stickhandling skills and is beginning to understand the concept of playing within limits, not always trying to do everything he's physically capable of doing. In other words, Julien has installed a "risk-reward ratio" into Wideman's on-ice game.

"We stress defense first, but having said that, we lead the League or are second in goals scored," Chiarelli said. "If you take care of your own end first, and that includes the neutral zone, the rest will follow. Dennis has such a high skill set that what he perceives as a normal play is really a pretty skilled play. If we can keep his passes, his vision, in check, he turns into a really skilled player. The stats and his play speak to that."

Wideman and Ference play on the Bruins' second defensive unit, behind Chara and Ward. Wideman quarterbacks the second power-play unit and gives the Bruins a strong, accurate shot from the right point. Chiarelli was criticized for trading away a reliable goal scorer in Boyes, but strengthening the defense was a priority, he said.

"We gave up a good player. It was one of those deals that benefited both sides," Chiarelli said. "We needed a puck-moving defenseman and identified him. He's blossomed since he's been here. He has a high 'compete' level. He has the skill set and he's good defensively. There was never any question about his skill, but there was some question about his risk-taking. He's dialed that down a bit to the extent that he's a very good puck mover and a very good passer. He's an important part of our team."
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