One month into the NHL offseason — and two months until training camp — there are still holes to fill on the Bruins. There are three open forward spots, including a crucial right wing vacancy on the top line alongside Milan Lucic and David Krejci. There is uncertainty and there will be auditions, and possibly acquisitions.
But on defense, there’s another story. There is uncertainty and there may be auditions, but there certainly won’t be acquisitions. Because on the blue line, the Bruins have too many options, not too few.
As general manager Peter Chiarelli has noted multiple times, the Bruins have nine NHL or NHL-caliber defensemen heading into 2014-15: Zdeno Chara, Dougie Hamilton, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, Matt Bartkowski, Torey Krug, Adam McQuaid, Kevan Miller, and David Warsofsky.
And that’s not including a couple of AHL players who aren’t far away from being NHL-ready in Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow.
So, no, Chiarelli doesn’t need to make acquisitions on defense. In fact, he needs to shed one or two bodies.
“We can’t go into the year with nine NHL defensemen,” Chiarelli said earlier in the offseason. “So at some point I have to do something there, but I’m in no hurry. It may be that we see how the preseason goes, with who’s mixing, who’s matching with whom.”
Of course, depth only goes so far. Heading into last season, the Bruins had seven NHL-caliber defensemen, and the big question was who was going to be the odd man out, who was going to sit in the press box.
But then the major injuries occurred. McQuaid. Seidenberg. McQuaid again.
Those seven defensemen quickly became six, and then five. Bartkowski, who had started the season spending more nights than he wanted on the ninth floor of TD Garden, ended up skating on the second pairing. Miller was promoted and, until some blips in the postseason, was a steady hand on the third pairing.
In the end, as Chiarelli has acknowledged, Seidenberg’s injury may have cost the Bruins a chance to return to the Stanley Cup Final. The Bruins’ inexperienced defensemen showed the weaknesses at the worst time, and a team built on defense and depth didn’t have enough of either when it mattered.
Still, nine is too many. Seidenberg is healthy, and so is the injury-prone McQuaid. Miller will be fighting to retain his spot, as will Bartkowski and McQuaid. And Warsofsky, whose skills and size are a duplicate of Krug’s, is likely No. 9 in the field, but will be trying to prove himself.
“I think David’s ready to play in the NHL,” said Providence coach Bruce Cassidy. “Could he beat out eight guys in Boston? I don’t know. That’s a pretty good lineup, right? So a good problem for Boston to have, tough for David. But I’ve always felt if you’re good enough and you’re ready and you go up and prove it, they’ll make room for you.”
That could provide some good competition in camp — if Chiarelli lets it get that far.
Despite the GM emphasizing that he wants to keep his core together, Boychuk ($3.366 cap hit) is a free agent after this upcoming season and could command a deal approaching that of new Washington Capital Brooks Orpik (five years, $27.5 million) on the open market. Boychuk would bring more return and more cap relief than other options. Chiarelli also has already shown a willingness to deal Bartkowski ($1.25 million), who was headed to Calgary at the 2013 trade deadline before the deal was nixed by Jarome Iginla.
“I think it’s very deep,” Bartkowski said of the core of defensemen. “I don’t really pay much attention to other teams’ depth, I guess, defensively. But we have to be up there in the depth category and that really just speaks volumes of the management being able to put together all these players.
“And more at a player level, it keeps you pushing every day to keep your job and earn your spot.”
There appear to be five locks: Chara, Hamilton, Seidenberg, Boychuk, and Krug. As for the final starting spot and the seventh defenseman, those will be picked from the remaining group.
“You can’t assume anything and when I say I expect to play, that’s what I expect out of myself,” Bartkowski said. “You have to expect it out of yourself, otherwise what’s your motivation? What are you playing for? You want to be able to help the team every way you can, and I think expecting that out of yourself to be able to play and be able to play well, night in, night out, is the best thing you can do.”
Part of the reason the Bruins have excess on the blue line has been their ability to develop young defensemen. Miller, Bartkowski, McQuaid, and Warsofsky spent multiple seasons learning in Providence, usually three to four. Krug and Boychuk spent a season there. Hamilton learned on the job in Boston.
“The bulk of my time we had Bruce Cassidy and Kevin Dean and they were both defensemen, they both played the game, they both knew it very well,” Bartkowski said. “And then Don Sweeney would come down and he was a great defenseman, so just being able to be surrounded by those types of figures or leaders, whatever you may call them, is a huge, huge help for younger players, especially in the minors.
“And then moving up through the ranks you’ve got Claude [Julien], who was a defenseman, you’ve got Doug Houda. I mean, all of them — just from a defensive standpoint — it’s a great place to be and a great place to learn.”
That might be why the Bruins have a surplus of defensemen, but it doesn’t explain what they will do.
But whether it’s Boychuk or Bartkowski, whether it’s Warsofsky back in Providence, whether it’s an injury, the Bruins have decisions ahead. They have a luxury, but they also have moves to make.
“We have nine, so I’ve got to do something,” Chiarelli said. “I can do it during the summer. The very latest point is when we have to submit our roster — I think we open on a Wednesday, so on the Tuesday [Oct. 7].
“You saw what prices were [at the start of free agency] for defensemen. I’m happy with the D that we have. We have more than enough. I’ve had guys call me for our D from the moment we lost. They want our D. They’re coached well, they’ve developed well, so I’m pretty comfortable with what we have. Figure out the right formula — that’s what our jobs are.”