The Boston Bruins have a bevy of young talent on defense, but with only six spots for defensemen on game day, there will be stiff competition for playing time.
Rookies Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski impressed when called upon in 2013, but the three rising stars are likely battling for just two open spots on the Bruins' back end. The summer arrival of former first-round pick Joe Morrow stands to make the race even more intense.
The Bruins have long been revered for their veteran defensive corps, and though a youth movement is on the horizon, the old-timers aren't ready to step out of the way just yet. Bruins captain Zdeno Chara is in no position to give up playing time, nor are Johnny Boychuk, Dennis Seidenberg or Adam McQuaid.
Here's a look at how the minutes shook down during the 2013 regular season:
|Rank||Player||Games Played||Average Time On Ice Per Game|
Andrew Ference is the only member of the Eastern Conference Champions to vacate his spot. The other contested role belonged to Dougie Hamilton, who came out of juniors surrounded by mountains of hype.
Hamilton held his own throughout the regular season but took a seat for the latter rounds of the playoffs, while Bartkowski and Krug stepped up. Hamilton continues to be the Bruins' most highly touted youngster, but his playing time this season is hardly assured.
Adam McQuaid's position on the third pairing may also be up for grabs, but the 26-year-old is entering his prime. McQuaid could actually be in line for more playing time as a result of his reliable defensive play and his ability to deliver a huge hit.
Each of the candidates offers up a different skill set, suggesting that a rotation could be employed to take advantage of nightly matchups. However, Claude Julien has historically avoiding fiddling with his lineup on a regular basis. Julien's top six went unchanged through the entirety of the 2013 regular season, suggesting only injuries will force alterations this winter.
Hamilton has all the skills to eventually succeed Chara as a perennial Norris candidate. His 6'5" frame gives him the strength to deliver a crushing blow, and he is a proven force in the offensive end. A superb puck-mover, Hamilton posted a league-best 113 points in his final 82 games with the OHL's Niagara Ice Dogs.
However, his booming shot and power-play wizardry didn't lead to much production in his rookie campaign in Boston. Hamilton finished the season with just 16 points in 42 games, and his minutes dropped in the postseason. The 20-year-old may have more NHL action under his belt than his competitors, but he is the least seasoned.
Hamilton split time between all three pairings last season, suggesting that Boston is committed to the former ninth-overall pick. As a potential superstar, Hamilton will probably get the benefit of the doubt in training camp. He will almost certainly be in Boston this season, and he should see second-pairing minutes along with a healthy dose of power-play time.
Krug lacks Hamilton's pedigree and his prototypical size. The 22-year-old American was undrafted out of Michigan State, but he earned folk-hero status with a marvelous postseason run. After a strong season with the Providence Bruins, Krug joined an injury-riddled B's team in the second round of the playoffs. The pocket-sized defenseman made an impact from the get-go.
Krug scored four goals in his first five games against the New York Rangers to become an instant fan favorite. Unlike his conservative fellow defensemen, he looked comfortable carrying the puck up the ice, and his lightning-quick release on shots from the point wreaked havoc on the Rangers.
He energized his teammates and fundamentally changed Boston's attack, and to the surprise of many, the 5'9" defenseman was no slouch in his own zone. The feisty blueliner played physical and fundamentally sound defense consistently, keeping him in the the lineup through the Stanley Cup Final.
Krug was exposed in Game 1 of the Final, allowing Andrew Shaw to slide a pretty feed under his stick that Dave Bolland put by Tuukka Rask. However, a momentary lapse should hardly disqualify him this season.
He is probably the Bruins' best power-play quarterback, at least until Hamilton develops. As a result, his roster spot should be assured. His minutes remain up for debate. Offensive defensemen are not ideal for third-pairing situations. The third duo is more traditionally reserved for players like McQuaid and Bartkowski, but Krug's offensive upside should make him worth the risk.
Though the Bruins have a long history of offensive defensemen, including Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque, the Claude Julien era has been defined by a defense-first attitude. The scheme, therefore, plays into the hands of Matt Bartkowski.
At 25-years-old, Bartkowski should be more mature than Hamilton or Krug, but the Ohio State man has just 20 NHL games under his belt. A seventh-round pick in 2008, Bartkowski has nowhere near the upside of his competitors but is a reliable two-way defender.
He won't be the fans' choice to see the ice, but his maturity could give him an edge. However, Bartkowski's lack of power-play skill will likely doom him to seventh-man duty, at least for this season.
If things go awry early in the year with any of the top six, Bartkowski is almost certain to take over. Three seasons in the AHL have him well prepared for spot duty, and he could become a fixture at the TD Garden if injury ever strikes.
With Hamilton, Krug and Bartkowski likely to nab the available spots on the 23-man roster, Joe Morrow looks destined for Providence. Selected in the same first round as Hamilton, Morrow is a comparable player. He is less physical but a better skater. Traded twice this year, first from Pittsburgh to Dallas and then to Boston, Morrow could use some stable time in the AHL.
Another power-play specialist, Morrow is nearly NHL-ready. He could probably earn a top-four spot with a number of clubs, but Boston has the opportunity to be patient with him. Morrow could see spot duty this year if necessary, but he is more likely to earn a spot in the fall of 2014.
As camp approaches, this position battle will attract tons of attention, and one can only speculate as to the pairings for the October 3 opener against Tampa Bay.
One thing is certain: The Bruins have a bright future on defense.
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