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Young trio fights for two spots on Bruins defense

by Matt Kalman

BOSTON – His name has become synonymous around the NHL with a meteoric rise on the sport's largest stage.

Not only did Torey Krug jump into the Boston Bruins' lineup last spring with just three prior games of NHL experience on his resume and score four goals in his first five Stanley Cup Playoffs contests. He did it on Broadway, where so many dreams of stardom are realized or crushed.

After helping the Bruins defeat the New York Rangers in five games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Krug was a regular among the Bruins’ defense corps. In the next two rounds, Krug and the Bruins swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final before being eliminated in six games by the Chicago Blackhawks in one of the most exciting Stanley Cup Final series in recent NHL history.

If the 5-foot-9, 180-pound defenseman went unrecognized around Boston or back in his home state of Michigan before last summer, those days ended with the offensive outburst that gave every undersized, undrafted player renewed hope of making the big time.

Krug welcomes his newfound notoriety.

"You just try to smile and give back and understand that you might make someone's day. You appreciate that," Krug said. "You appreciate everyone that comes up and says, 'Hey, I loved watching you play in the playoffs.' So it's great. I love hearing that stuff and the support that I got."

Krug isn’t the only familiar face in Bruins training camp competing for a job this fall. The 22-year-old is one of the main contenders, along with second-year blueliner Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski, for two open jobs on the Bruins' defense. Boston's most glaring hole along its blue line opened up when Andrew Ference departed as a free agent over the summer to sign with the Edmonton Oilers.

Bruins coach Claude Julien has also counted prospects Zach Trotman, Kevan Miller and David Warsofsky among the group battling, but none of those three players boast even one game of NHL experience. The most likely scenario has two members of the Krug-Hamilton-Bartkowski trio making Boston’s lineup while the third player either waits his turn as a healthy scratch or hones his craft with Providence of the American Hockey League. General manager Peter Chiarelli has already said that his preference is to keep the 20-year-old Hamilton, who made the jump from junior directly to the NHL last season.

Despite being the youngest of the three players, Hamilton has the most NHL experience. Last season, he skated in 49 games including the playoffs, and he finished the regular season with five goals, 16 points and a plus-4 rating. There are high expectations for the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, and Hamilton is trying to meet them by building off a successful rookie campaign that ended with the Toronto native sitting as a healthy scratch through most of the postseason.

"I think everything," the 6-5, 199-pound Hamilton said when asked what he needs to do better. "You have some time, you're older, you're more experienced, you're a little bit stronger. It's just part of the development and getting better and trying to improve every year and getting better so you don’t hit a plateau."

A lot of Hamilton's improvement will have to come in playing positional hockey to win battles against older, bulkier players. Krug and Bartkowski (6-1, 196 pounds) have similar challenges, most notably making up for their lack of size. But they also share the challenge of not counting on last year's performance to assure them of a role in Boston to start this season. Julien already declared that a job in the NHL is the 25-year-old Bartkowski's to lose, and undoubtedly he feels the same way about his other two young defensemen.

"I came in thinking, just preparing and everything, to be on the team," said Bartkowski, who collected two points in seven playoff games when forced into action last year. "And I just got in the mindset of anything less is a disappointment so [I have to] put my best foot forward."

Although Krug is attending his first NHL training camp, all three players claim to have come into this year's camp in better shape than in previous years. They've also gone through practices and preseason games with the attitude that nothing will be handed to them.

"We don't have to spell that out for them. I spoke openly to the group about competition. I'm really looking forward to seeing the competition at all levels, at all positions," Chiarelli said. "Obviously there are guys that are fixed in their position but when you look at those three D, there's really three D for two spots. So I guess that doesn't rule out other D-men that may be the seven, but common sense would dictate right now that it would be those three guys for those two spots. And they have embraced it and they've played well."

After the type of playoff run Krug, Hamilton and Bartkowski produced last season, it would've been easy to coast into this year's camp on the strength of statistics and news clippings. Instead all three are staying humble. After all, it wasn't that long ago that all three were looking at Boston's roster from the outside in.

Krug in particular could've let his head swell. He became a household name with his highlight-reel puck carrying and shooting. However, his helmet still fits the same.

"I guess that's just who I am. I don't like to let that stuff get to my head," he said. "It comes a lot from my parents, the way I grew up, a blue-collar family. I just stay grounded and stay true to your roots and you always have to understand that there's someone trying to get your job. So for me it's all business.

"I know this year coming in there's so many defensemen that can step in and play for the Boston Bruins. And I want to be that guy that does it the whole year. I don't want to just come in here a couple games at a time. I'll always have that mentality. I always know there's going to be a younger guy coming in."

For right now, Krug is one of those younger guys. And just like Hamilton and Bartkowski, he's battling his contemporaries to take that next step toward what will hopefully become a decade-long NHL career.

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