Bruins defenseman Dennis Wideman has admitted on numerous occasions this season that he is struggling to find his game. As he acknowledged following a minus-3 performance in the Bruins' 5-1 loss to Ottawa earlier this week, Wideman's confidence is pretty low.
"Today was terrible," Wideman said Monday. "I didn't even want the puck today. I wouldn't say it's [been] an up-and-down season [for me] because it has been [much] more down [than up]. There is still a lot of time left, so I just have to find something to build off it and get moving in the right direction."
Based on what head coach Claude Julien had to say after practice Wednesday, the time may be now or never. Wideman must find his game and start to play like the defenseman that finished with 50 points and was a plus-32 last season, not the guy who heads into Thursday's game with only 14 points and stands at minus-8.
"First of all, he's got to bring his intensity level up and he's got to have a better compete level," Julien said of Wideman. "That's what makes him a great player. He should easily be a top-two … at worst, a top-three defenseman for us, and he's not close to that right now. We know it. He knows it. He's got to pick up his game."
When Wideman arrived in Boston at the 2007 trade deadline in exchange for forward Brad Boyes, the skinny on him was that he had the potential to be the prototypical puck-moving defenseman that many NHL general managers coveted. Several things Wideman needed to correct, however, were his risky play in the defensive zone and knowing when to pinch in the offensive zone.
"I remember when he came here, we were all wondering what the heck [Peter] Chiarelli was doing acquiring him. He was a mess," one NHL scout told NESN.com of the acquisition of Wideman. "This guy was a turnover machine and would always get burnt pinching. He depended too much on his partners backing him up. All he thought was offense."
In 2007-08 he improved in these areas, and while his offensive output was not where he would've liked, finishing with 38 points, he tightened up his game and finished with a plus-11 after being a minus-3 with the B's the season before. To that point of his career, he had never been a plus player, but thanks to Julien's system, Wideman was learning to focus on his defense first while still applying his offensive skills.
After changing his style, the Bruins decided Wideman was well on his way to becoming the transition player that Chiarelli valued. The defenseman was subsequently rewarded with a four-year deal worth just over $15 million. Wideman, in turn, went on to have a breakthrough season in 2008-09.
"I think Julien is so smart defensively and can hide a player's weaknesses," the scout said, "but you could see this kid had skill from the get-go, so I think it was more him [being] willing to adapt and learn. I do think [the skill is still] there, but I don't know what has happened this season. He's lost, really lost out there."
Julien, too, has kept his faith in Wideman, trying to help him find his way and regain his confidence. But now, says Julien, the onus is on Wideman to make that happen. The season is about to head into the stretch run, and it's up to the 26-year-old defenseman to reach deep inside and work harder to correct his game.
"Everybody has different personalities. There are guys that are too hard on themselves and guys that aren't hard enough," Julien said. "We've got to try and push him in the right direction. Our approach has been to work with him in the areas where he needs help, but at a certain point, it becomes one of those things where you've got to say, 'We're almost 50 games in now and it's time that you take charge of the situation and bring your intensity level up.'"
Julien understands that players can lose their way, but it seems as if the coach feels he's done all he can to get Wideman back on track. For the good of the team, Julien may soon be forced to curb Wideman's minutes. And it wouldn't be surprising if, once the Bruins are back to full health, Wideman finds himself watching games from the press box.
"If you want to play like a fifth or sixth defenseman, then maybe [that's] what you're going to get ice-time-wise," said Julien. "It's pretty simple. We've got to do what's best for our hockey club. He's got to pick up his game. He knows it and I think he wants to. But to do that, his intensity and his compete level has to be better. It's up to him right now to show how much ice time he wants to get or how much he wants to help our hockey club. … Patience is one thing, but we've got to start getting some results."
Wideman's teammates feel for him and are trying to help him as well, but they too agree that in the end, it has to be Wideman pulling himself out of this slump.
"We're going to stay positive and keep him upbeat as much as we can," captain Zdeno Chara said, "but he needs to simplify his game again and stay upbeat himself. We know what he is capable of and he knows too, but to get back to that he has to concentrate. He needs to improve his passing and be more confident with the puck."
Similarly, while Julien fully realizes that he is calling out Wideman, he still believes in him and says that he won't stop trying to motivate his struggling blue-liner.
"We've got to take the responsibility as coaches to get the players to compete at that certain level," he said. "I'm not excluding myself from that, either. It's up to me to keep pushing and get him to perform. He's too good of a player for us to watch him play that way."
From the sound of it, things aren't going to change until Wideman realizes that his team is behind him and he returns to thinking of the puck as his friend. He has proved he can adapt and improve his game before. Now he must do it again.