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Prospects provide hope for Bruins defense

GM Don Sweeney has faith that youth will help solidify blue line

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

WILMINGTON, Mass. - The last time the Boston Bruins had taken a defenseman with their first-round pick in the NHL Draft was in 2011, when Dougie Hamilton heard his name called as the No. 9 selection. On the eve of the 2015 draft, Hamilton was traded to the Calgary Flames for three picks (one first, two seconds) after a contentious contract negotiation.

The Bruins had wanted to trade again, to use their three consecutive first-round picks (Nos. 13, 14 and 15) in the 2015 draft to move up and select a player they hoped would eventually replace Hamilton -- because they knew they didn't have one.

That was their weak spot, something well known to the Bruins and specifically to newly named general manager Don Sweeney. It was a void for Boston. It was time to stock up.

And though they weren't able to move up in that draft, the Bruins have used plenty of picks on defensemen, selecting Jakub Zboril (No. 15), Brandon Carlo (No. 37) and Jeremy Lauzon (No. 52) in 2015, and Charlie McAvoy (No. 14) and Ryan Lindgren (No. 49) in 2016.

They are prospects who will be watched closely in the coming years, starting as soon as rookie and training camp this fall, when a couple - along with older prospects from the Peter Chiarelli era in Matt Grzelcyk and Robbie O'Gara - will attempt to show Boston they are not just the Bruins defensemen of the future, that they are the defensemen of the present.

"I feel like hopefully I will at least play my first NHL game this year, that's my goal for the year," Carlo, 19, said Friday.

The Bruins, who opted to buy out the final year of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg's contract on June 30, are sorely lacking in high-end talent on the blue line. There are no sure-fire top-four defensemen of the future, with the exception of Torey Krug, who signed a four-year contract the same day Seidenberg's was terminated. Zdeno Chara is 39 years old. John-Michael Liles is 35. Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller are serviceable stay-at-home defensemen who are better suited to play on the bottom pairing. Joe Morrow and Colin Miller are unproven.

"As I've said, we have a number of players that are on the doorstep of pushing current players we have," Sweeney said. "And that's what you want, you want it internally from the organization."

That's why the Bruins have been drafting the players they have been drafting, trying to find a defenseman that can carry the team, the future star. The future Dougie Hamilton.

"It's been an area of need that we wanted to address, something I identified in taking over that we hadn't drafted a lot of players in the top two rounds in previous drafts in the back end," Sweeney said. "So it was an area we targeted.

"Obviously the player has to be there, you have to feel good about that player. You enter a draft knowing that you want to take the best player available, but at times there are organizational needs that you have to identify and we feel very good about it.

"These players are all now going to grow up together and be a big part of our future going forward. You add that with a couple players in Robbie and Matt Grzelcyk coming out of college that are a little older, it's a good group."

It's a group that provides some hope, with the promise of talent and potential and a future brighter than the present. There is a chance the defensemen on the current roster could be pushed by the likes of Carlo and Lauzon, O'Gara and Grzelcyk, though it's also possible they are not seasoned enough.

Carlo, a 6-foot-5, 203-pound right-shot defenseman, noted he is making strides in size and strength, that he could see himself helping the team in the near future, but acknowledged at the same time he still has work to do in speed, getting back on pucks and skating. He saw some of that come to life in a brief stint with Providence of the American Hockey League at the end of last season.

"Depending on how I do at camp, I feel like I'll realize which is better for me, and which is not," Carlo said. "I think definitely I can hold my [own] at the pro level, but that doesn't mean at the same time that I'll be a strong player at the NHL level as well.

"Obviously you want a guy who can step in and impact the game, not just be a part of it. So I definitely want to be at the point where I'm ready to impact the game rather than just be a part of it when I make that level."

That will be the key, allowing those players to get where they need them to be before pushing them to fill holes the team has created. It's not easy to do in the wake of two consecutive seasons of watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs instead of playing in them.

"Patience is a word that is not readily thrown around in this marketplace," Sweeney said. "And we understand that. I've never not acknowledged that we're in a competitive business. We want to win every year.

"But you have to grow your players. I firmly believe that. I've been committed to it since I've taken the job and certainly even working in development, I've always believed that the internal search is the best place to find your players. … And they have to hit. If they don't, then that's on us for misidentifying. But the opportunity will be there for them to have a chance to play for us."

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