The Boston Bruins' blue line underwent a transformation during last year's run to the Stanley Cup Final.
After being a group that provided little offensive production and didn't skate or move the puck well during the regular season, the Bruins' defensemen were more than just physical, defensive-minded players when the playoffs commenced.
The sudden change happened when prospects Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski, in addition to former first-round pick Dougie Hamilton, became important parts of the team's blue line in the postseason.
These three defensemen created a new-look blue line that incorporated more quickness, offensive skill and skating ability than Bruins fans have seen over the last decade. Before last year's Eastern Conference Final, Bruins head coach Claude Julien talked about the impact of his young D-men.
"The three young [defensemen], what they gave our back end was a different look, and it helped our speed. It’s not a knock on the guys that have been in there, it’s just that we got fresh, young legs in there."
Which young D-man will make the biggest impact in 2013-14?
"I didn’t expect it that early with [Bartkowski] and with [Hamilton] and with [Krug]; these are higher-end prospects that at some point we knew were going to help us. Torey, the last half of the year in Providence, was maybe the best player in the league. He was terrific. It was good to see that it’s helping us earlier than expected, and they’re three really terrific kids. It’s good to know that the depth is there."
What the Bruins blue line had in physicality, toughness, defensive awareness and experience over the last three years, it lacked in proper amount of offensive skill, power-play ability, superior skating and playmaking. The team tried to acquire different players to address these weaknesses, most notably with the failed Tomas Kaberle trade deadline move in 2011.
As we saw in the 2013 playoffs, the answer to these problems was inside the organization the entire time.
Boston will have a much more offensively skilled blue line next season as Krug, Bartkowski and Hamilton's abilities improve with more experience. Let's take a look at how the injection of youth will impact Boston's defensive corps in 2013-14.
Increased Scoring from the Blue Line
The Bruins defensemen led the 2013 playoffs in goals scored with 16 in just 22 games, compared to only 23 goals in 48 regular-season games. While it would be unfair to expect the D-men to score at a rate of 0.72 goals per game over the course of 82 games next year, last year's impressive postseason production from the blue line should be a sign of things to come.
Unlike several of Boston's older defensemen, Krug, Bartkowski and Hamilton all handle the puck very well inside the blue line and don't hesitate to unleash their powerful shots from the point if there's an open lane. They also possess the vision and playmaking skills to create high-quality scoring chances.
Without any elite offensive forwards likely to score at a point-per-game rate, the Bruins are forced to rely on their defensemen to contribute.
After finishing in the top five of goals scored in 2010-11 and 2011-12, Boston ranked 13th last season, highlighted by a dreadful April in which the team scored more than two goals in just four of 14 games.
When these three defensemen played critical roles during the playoffs, the Bruins averaged 2.96 goals per game through the Stanley Cup Final, almost 0.5 goals per game better than their regular-season rate.
The additional puck-moving, playmaking and skating ability that Krug, Bartkowski and Hamilton bring to the ice will create a Boston blue line that is much more skilled offensively than it has been in many years.
More Effective Power Play
The area where Krug, Bartkowski and Hamilton will make the strongest impact next season is on the power play. Here's a comparison between Boston's regular-season and playoff power-play statistics from last season.
|PP% at Home||12.5||15.4|
|PP% on Road||17.2||20.8|
|PPP from D-Men||12||10|
As this chart shows, the power play, which has been a huge problem area and weakness for Boston since Marc Savard left the roster in 2010-11, was a more effective unit in the postseason last year. It's not a coincidence that the three young defensemen, most notably Krug and his three power-play goals, were responsible for most of this improvement.
Krug and Hamilton walk the blue line with precision and make quick passes to open up shooting lanes for teammates. When the puck comes to them from the half wall, this duo rarely gives up an opportunity to fire a shot on net. They will also help the Bruins enter the attacking zone more efficiently with crisp passes on the breakout and the ability to skate the puck through traffic.
Before Krug and Hamilton became important parts of the power play, Julien was forced to put guys like Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference at the point when Boston had the man advantage. None of these defensemen have the skill set of a true power-play quarterback, which limited the effectiveness of the Bruins' power play.
As two highly skilled offensive defensemen, Krug and Hamilton will help the Bruins create many more scoring chances on the power play while also reducing the amount of turnovers in the attacking zone with their impressive puck-handling skills.
Quicker on Defense
One of the Bruins' weaknesses over the last few years has been a lack of speed on defense.
Chara, Seidenberg, Ference (now in Edmonton) and McQuaid are not quick enough to win races against quick forwards and don't have the ability to skate their way out of trouble in the defensive zone.
That isn't the case with Krug, Bartkowski and Hamilton, who are capable of skating from end to end with the puck and making a quick first pass out of their own zone to prevent the opposing team's forecheck from being effective.
These youngsters are confident with the puck on their stick and don't panic when there's traffic around them. They are rarely out of position and rarely take risks offensively when the team could be vulnerable on the back end.
The Chicago Blackhawks were so difficult to beat last season because their defense was quite mobile and moved the puck very well. The Bruins aren't on that same level, but they are getting there with the additions of younger, faster defensemen such as Krug, Bartkowski and Hamilton.
Defensively There Is Room for Improvement
Krug, Bartkowski and Hamilton are not terrible defensively by any means, but they aren't shutdown players at this stage of their careers. Bartkowski and Krug don't have tremendous size, but both are willing to block shots and play a physical game.
Hamilton still needs to add some strength and learn to use his great size (6'5", 199 pounds) to wear down opponents physically, but playing alongside teammates of Chara and Seidenberg's caliber will help this area of his development.
The next step for these young defensemen is to improve defensively and earn a spot on the penalty kill. At the moment, the only reliable penalty killers that Julien has on the blue line are Chara, Seidenberg and Boychuk.
Playing in the defense-first system that Boston uses will teach these three players to become responsible players in the defensive zone and learn what it takes to defend at a high level in the NHL.
When previewing the Bruins' 2013-14 season, the most interesting angle is how Julien will divide ice time between seven quality defensemen competing for six spots. Here's my projection for the three pairings.
|1||Zdeno Chara||Dougie Hamilton|
|2||Dennis Seidenberg||Johnny Boychuk|
|3||Torey Krug||Matt Bartkowski|
Should Krug, Hamilton and Bartkowski start 2013-14 in the top six?
This setup leaves veteran Adam McQuaid out of the top six, but Bartkowski is a more complete two-way player and won't improve much with additional time in the AHL. He needs to be a full-time NHL player to develop his full potential, as is the case with Krug and Hamilton.
There will be mistakes made and some growing pains for these three young defensemen next season, especially since Krug and Bartkowski have a combined 23 games of regular-season experience. But the Bruins will be a better team now and in the future with a younger, highly skilled and more mobile group of defensemen.
Even though Julien has more players than roster spots for his three pairings, it's an issue he won't be concerned with. Strong defensive depth is vital to winning the Stanley Cup.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft. All quotes obtained firsthand.