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Bruins defense requires offseason repairs

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As Saturday’s loss to Ottawa showed, the Bruins’ goalies need a lot more support in front of the net.
As Saturday’s loss to Ottawa showed, the Bruins’ goalies need a lot more support in front of the net.(Elise Amendola)

As an opponent, Jonas Gustavsson understood how his teammates with Detroit and Toronto felt when they had to charge headfirst into previous iterations of the Bruins defense.

"This is a team, in the past, that had been playing with a lot of layers, really protecting the goalie and the house, and trying to make it a tough time, a hard time, for other teams to score," said the No. 2 puckstopper during Monday's breakup day at TD Garden. "I know it's been frustrating coming into this building with other teams, because you know you're going to have a tough time. You're always going to have to step up and play a hard, physical game and be ready for a big challenge.

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"We tried to play that same way this year, too. I'm probably not the one to point out if something went wrong or things like that when it comes to systems. I just know the system we played this year has been successful in the past. It's a good way to play."

The ferocity of defending that Gustavsson experienced as a visitor did not extend into his yearlong stay in the Boston net. The identity of playing defense first and protecting Gustavsson and Tuukka Rask slipped in 2015-16. The Bruins allowed 2.78 goals per game, 20th in the league.

This is the area that has to be general manager Don Sweeney's priority before 2016-17. In contrast to previous breakup days, neither Sweeney nor Claude Julien spoke about the season or the one to come.

Defense is what the nine-year Bruins coach knows best. Like most of his peers, Julien approaches the game with a foundational intention to protect the house at all costs. He believes a stout defense initiates the rush game and transition to offense.

Defensemen keep tight gaps when possible, but otherwise stay at home. Forwards backcheck like mad. This allows the Bruins, when they cause turnovers, to slingshot into the offensive zone with speed and numbers.

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Sweeney was up against it from the start when Dougie Hamilton informed the Bruins he was not interested in re-signing. Hamilton, however, had no options outside of accepting an offer sheet or declining to sign with the Bruins. Sweeney could have matched an offer sheet or told Hamilton to pound sand. Young defensemen usually change their minds when faced with the prospect of not playing and not being paid.

But the Bruins traded Hamilton, a bold move considering they hadn't replaced Johnny Boychuk, the defenseman Sweeney's predecessor dismissed before the 2014-15 season. This put the Bruins down two top-four defensemen. They are difficult to replace.

We all know what came next. The Bruins rolled out three reliable defensemen in Zdeno Chara, Adam McQuaid, and Torey Krug. Kevan Miller, who was recovering from shoulder surgery, didn't gain traction until the second half. Dennis Seidenberg, coming off unexpected back surgery, couldn't find his level upon returning. John-Michael Liles's 17-game segment had its peaks and valleys. Colin Miller (42 games), Zach Trotman (38), and Joe Morrow (33) fought over seats in the press box.

"It was definitely hard," Morrow said. "Especially once you get in a groove, you get comfortable, you start playing well, and somebody else has to play and take that step, too. It was kind of a game of catch-up. You'd progress and you'd be the go-to guy, then your turn was up and you can only go so far in a short amount of time."

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It took only one breakdown for further failures to happen down the line. One defenseman would be out of position. His partner would have to compensate. Forwards would have to scramble to provide assistance. The result: too many opponents left open in dangerous positions.

The Bruins will straighten out their defense. It would be irresponsible to launch a second straight season with a leaky blue line. They are in better, although not ideal, shape to fix it this summer by spending their futures capital.

Their best chips include two 2016 first-round picks and high-level prospects (Jake DeBrusk, Jakub Zboril, Zach Senyshyn, Brandon Carlo, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Jeremy Lauzon, and Danton Heinen). They could have cached more futures for flipping purposes by trading Loui Eriksson, but they opted to retain the unrestricted free-agent-to-be.

Sweeney's preferred targets are in Minnesota, Anaheim, and Winnipeg, which have defensemen to spare. Matt Dumba (Wild), Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen (Ducks), and Jacob Trouba (Jets) will be restricted. Depending on their asks, their teams may have to deal other defensemen to clear space.

Meanwhile, the Bruins have decisions to make on Krug, Morrow, Trotman, and Colin Miller, who are all restricted. Krug has arbitration rights, which will give him strong bargaining power. His numbers (4-40—44, 21:36 average ice time per game) are good enough for him to ask for $5 million annually. The raises won't be as steep for Morrow, Trotman, or Miller. But the Bruins may decide that one or several of the trio are not worth re-upping. Of the three, Miller showed the most promise of developing into a dependable NHL defenseman.

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The Bruins missed the playoffs by 1 point. They aren't far off. But being a good defenseman or two short showed up in their results.

"The team defense we played at times, then the team defense we couldn't keep up, the gap was pretty dramatic," Rask said. "I guess that's what hurt us. We would let in one or two goals, play great defense. then we'd let in four, five, six goals, and just be sloppy. Collectively, as a team, that was a really tough, tough thing for us."


Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.