As his mission requires, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli is trying to make his team better prior to the March 5 trade deadline. The deal that Chiarelli would like to make to improve his defense, however, may not be possible.
He’s all right with that.
The current trade market could fill the textbooks of Economics 101 courses around the country. Among defensemen, the principle in play is supply and demand. The first commodity is scarce. The second is through the roof. The result: Prices are more inflated than Facebook’s P/E ratio.
“There’s not much of a market right now,” Chiarelli said. “I like the personality of our team. If we don’t end up doing anything, we don’t end up doing anything. I’m OK. But I’d like to add some depth at some point defensively.”
Even before Dennis Seidenberg shredded his knee against Ottawa Dec. 27, the Bruins were always planning to add on defense before the deadline. Chiarelli’s philosophy is to enter the playoffs with eight NHL-ready defensemen.
The Bruins have no delusions about replacing Seidenberg via trade. It is hard to find a defenseman as experienced, physical, versatile, and dependable as Seidenberg. The left-shot Seidenberg was the team’s No. 2 defenseman, a strongman who is even more comfortable patrolling the right side of the ice. It’s even harder to acquire one.
But they can add a second-pairing defenseman who could provide some of Seidenberg’s defensive presence. Such candidates include Henrik Tallinder, Andrew MacDonald, and Chris Phillips. The Bruins have the assets required: a first-round pick and prospects such as Zach Trotman, David Warsofsky, Justin Florek, and Alexander Khokhlachev.
Two questions remain. Are any of the available defensemen better than Matt Bartkowski? If so, is it worth the high price to land such a player?
Assuming all the defensemen are healthy, the Bruins have a blue-line rotation set for the playoffs. On the left side, Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug are locked into their spots. Dougie Hamilton, Johnny Boychuk, and Adam McQuaid are good to go on the right side. Kevan Miller will be the spare right-shot defenseman.
Bartkowski, once the healthy scratch to start 2013-14, is the lone defenseman whose postseason role is in question. Bartkowski has appeared in seven career playoff games. When Bartkowski struggles with his decision-making, the mistakes can be costly.
The way Bartkowski is playing, a high-priced replacement may not be necessary. In 10 of his last 11 games, Bartkowski has played 20 or more minutes. Coaches grant such workloads to defensemen they trust.
Saturday’s 7-2 blowout of the Senators may not be a good example. The flat-line Senators played like they were already on the beach.
But Bartkowski looked comfortable playing alongside Hamilton. Bartkowski led all Bruins with 21:27 of ice time. He landed two shots on goal, dished out two hits, and blocked two shots. In the second period, Bartkowski gapped up to close on Bobby Ryan. He then led with his stick to check Ryan. The Ottawa sharpshooter’s attempt deflected off Bartkowski’s stick and floated into Chad Johnson’s glove at 6:17.
Bartkowski easily and repeatedly executed his trademark move, one that makes him look like Duncan Keith. There is no better defenseman on the roster at wheeling around the net with the puck, accelerating through the defensive zone, and serving as a one-man breakout.
“I would be,” Chiarelli said when asked if he’d be comfortable using Bartkowski as a top-four playoff defenseman. “He’s learning better how to defend. He’s getting more minutes. He’s still making mistakes, but the rest of them are, too. I’ve been looking closely at his defending. He can certainly wheel the puck out well and turn the net well, but he’s maturing as a defender. That’s what we’re looking for: better defenders.”
The defensemen the Bruins are targeting may trump Bartkowski in experience, hockey sense, and in-your-face presence. Bartkowski’s assets are his skating and puck-rushing skill. The Bruins do not have great team speed. Bartkowski’s breakout skills make them faster.
The rental market is limited. Most teams in playoff contention are tight against the cap, both this year and next. They’re not eager to add players whose contracts will not expire. In turn, that drives up the cost of rentals.
The blue-line market expands if the Bruins look beyond UFAs-to-be. Like their peers, the Bruins’ preference is to add an expiring contract. But the Bruins have not ruled out taking on a player with term remaining beyond the season. That most likely would mean moving a current Bruin to make room for future signings.
“I can see it,” Chiarelli said. “My objective is not to take anyone off my roster. I’d probably have to do that based on who we have to sign and where we are at the cap. But I’m not ruling it out.”
Krug, Bartkowski, and Reilly Smith are restricted after this season. Of the three, Krug and Smith will require the biggest raises. Jarome Iginla will be unrestricted. The Bruins have been happy with the right wing’s presence on the first line.
If the Bruins broaden their targets, defensemen such as Andy Greene would be in the mix. Greene, New Jersey’s ice-time leader, is a smart, experienced, left-shot defenseman. He would require a big return. Also, Greene has one more year remaining on his contract ($3 million cap hit in 2014-15, according to www.capgeek.com).
The most likely casualty would be Chris Kelly, who has two years remaining at $3 million annually. Carl Soderberg has displaced Kelly as the No. 3 center. Kelly has a no-trade clause.
If the Bruins are comfortable with Bartkowski as their second-pairing defenseman, they’ll pursue depth reinforcements. That means a cheaper but experienced defenseman who could shuttle from press box to the ice.
Either way, the Bruins need help on defense. Injuries will happen. Their main men will be gassed after the Olympics.
The Bruins’ window is now. They can chase Cups for the next four seasons while Chara is under contract. Help, whether it’s a top-four presence or a depth defenseman, is required.