Adam McQuaid’s injury-induced absence, projected to last through as late as some point in February, means the Boston Bruins will be down one of their five returning defensemen to commence the belated 2012-13 season.
Along with the four healthy returnees―Johnny Boychuk, Zdeno Chara, Andrew Ference and Dennis Seidenberg―two new faces in Dougie Hamilton and Aaron Johnson would give the Bruins a nightly quorum of six blueliners. But that leaves one other active roster spot to be filled so as to have someone on standby in case of another injury or the need for a shakeup.
That will all but inevitably mean dipping into the Providence blue-line brigade, which has dressed nine different individuals so far in 2012-13.
Granted, that quantity yields little in the way of NHL-ready quality, but the P-Bruins boast at least one veteran and one semi-veteran whose recent AHL performances have been suitable enough.
The lineup’s only two constants, those who have not missed significant time due to injury, demotion or healthy scratches, have been Matt Bartkowski and David Warsofsky. Both have suited up for 30 of the P-Bruins’ first 32 games and put up identical offensive numbers (2-7-9), though the former has been more efficient in his day job.
As of this season, Bartkowski is the longest-tenured defensive prospect in the Boston pipeline. He saw action in six NHL games as a rookie in 2010-11 and three more last season whilst chalking up 119 AHL appearances.
After practically personifying the team’s slow start, Bartkowski has stepped up his game the way one in his position ought to. Over his first 14 appearances, he mustered merely one point, brooked a minus-six rating and sat two other games out while Providence went 7-8-1.
Beginning with a Nov. 30 contest with Connecticut, Bartkowski has since been making regular plays from the point. Suiting up for each of the last 16 games, he has logged two goals and six assists, stamped a plus-six rating and helped the P-Bruins to a 10-5-1 run.
He certainly has a multifaceted edge over Warsofsky, who has been a minus-six over eight games since Dec. 16 and, at least as far as the P-Bruins roster can tell, is four inches shorter and 33 pounds lighter.
The same can be said of the rest of Bartkowski’s younger colleagues, who have either been in and out of the lineup, are still short on professional stripes or have simply performed too inconsistently.
Garnet Exelby, a first-year Bruin with much more NHL and AHL seasoning, could make a credible case to start Boston’s season as well.
Other than rookie Tommy Cross, an ECHL call-up who went on a plus-seven tear, only to be scratched over this past weekend, Exelby owns the best rating among Providence defensemen. In his first five games since returning from an injury, he has been on the ice for only two of the last 13 opposing goals.
While his most recent of 408 NHL games occurred in 2009-10 with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 31-year-old journeyman has used his 210-pound frame to the very degree that the Bruins should ask of him. In some cases, with the lockout having a trickle-down talent effect on the AHL, he has done it against a fair sprinkling of NHL-caliber competition.
His offensive output does not measure up to that of Bartkowski or almost any other colleague, but McQuaid is hardly known for that either. Nor should a stand-in seventh defenseman necessarily be tasked with fostering sustained attacks when he dresses.
Pending training camp tryouts, Exelby would be the more logical choice in case the rookie Hamilton or the long-idled Johnson, who did not have any extramural engagements during the lockout, need to be relegated from regular shifts. If the Bruins are compelled to outright fill McQuaid’s indefinite vacancy with a simulation of his size and skill set, then Exelby would be their best bet.
Otherwise, with his better all-around kit and familiarity with the organization, Bartkowski is the front-runner to fill in, just as he did when McQuaid was unavailable at the start of 2011-12.