Here's a guy who failed to score a goal in 64 games between the regular season and playoffs last year. His minus-7 was the fifth-worst mark on the team, and that dropped even further with a minus-9 in 13 postseason contests. He averaged more than a hit a game, but was still just 17th on the team in that category, and fifth among Bruins defensemen in blocked shots.
Yet somehow, the Bruins were a far more successful team with Ference in the lineup. They went 28-16-7 in the games he played and just 11-14-6 without him. The club's midseason swoon coincided with his absence with a groin injury, as the first game after he was hurt started a 1-9-4 skid, and Boston immediately won four straight before the Olympic break upon his return.
Maybe that helps explain why the Bruins were so quick to lock him up to a three-year extension in March, though the rush to sign him at a $2.25 million annual salary — a healthy raise over his previous $1.4 million cap hit for a player who struggles to stay healthy — still defies logic when the Bruins' current cap problems are considered.
"Andy has been a real character player for us and he is a stabilizing factor on the defense," said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli at the time of the signing. "He is a real cog in our defensive unit and I think he complements everybody real well."
Ference is the type of player who can only truly be appreciated by watching him play regularly. He doesn't pile up stats on the scoresheet or make a lot of flashy plays for the highlight reels, but when healthy, he's usually in the right position and rarely makes glaring mistakes. It's the kind of stabilizing presence that often goes unnoticed by casual fans, but doesn't escape the attention of the coaching staff and front office.
But Ference has also been in need of the training staff's attention far too much. Since being acquired from Calgary on Feb. 10, 2007, he played 183 games for Boston, while missing 91. He's also missed eight of 31 playoff games since his arrival.
Ference actually came to Boston in the midst of a 160-game iron-man streak, but in his first full season in Boston in 2007-08, he missed 23 games with upper body, knee and leg injuries. The following season, he was out for 35 games in the regular season and eight in the playoffs with a broken right leg and a torn groin, hernia and bruised pelvis. He required groin and hernia surgery after the season, but last year missed another 31 games in three separate stints with further groin problems that required another round of surgery in May.
"Without a doubt, injuries are a tough part of the game," said Ference near the end of last season. "I guess I feel fortunate that I'm here in Boston where we get probably some of the best medical advice and the best surgery you can probably get in America.
"What's gone on in last couple years — you know, last year I had the tear in the adductor and a hernia that had to be repaired, and this year I basically repeated the same thing on the other side," added Ference. "The injuries that I had from last year feel 100 percent. I guess if I'm leaning on that experience, I know that the side that is a little bit injured this year, going into next year will be 100 percent. I feel confident."
But are the Bruins confident that Ference will finally stay healthy this season? And can they afford to have him continually spending major chunks of the season out of the lineup?
At 31 and entering his 13th professional season, it's not likely Ference's body will suddenly become more durable. The fact that his recent injuries have largely been recurring problems in the same area makes his prognosis even more worrisome. Add in his physical style of play despite his modest 5-foot-11, 189-pound frame, and it's a recipe for many more missed games.
"Every time you get an injury, you can't avoid them, unless you stay out of the corners and play a pretty weak game," said Ference. "I choose not to do that. So you take them and you deal with them and you make the most of it."
There's no questioning Ference's toughness or tenacity. He battles bigger forwards with ferocity and has done everything possible to stay in the lineup, including undergoing a rare blood procedure called platelet rich plasma therapy to return in time to play in the 2009 playoffs. That process removes blood from a healthy part of the body, spins it in a machine to remove the blood platelets, then injects it into the torn muscle to help it heal faster.
"It hurt like hell going in, but it was interesting," said Ference of the procedure. "It was like the consistency of cake batter when they spun it down. Cake batter getting injected into you doesn't feel so hot, especially in the groin."
Those kind of sacrifices for the team, plus the production Ference supplies when in the lineup, make Chiarelli willing to accept the risk of more extended absences due to injury.
"I think with a player of his size and the way he plays that there will be injuries, knock on wood," said Chiarelli. "But I was given an assurance with respect to his groin and core that everything is repairable and everything will be fine. We're prepared to take the injuries based on the way he plays. I'm not going to lie to you, and Andy, he'll say the same thing. He plays hard and that's what happens when you play hard. You look around the league and that's what happens. Obviously we looked at that and we factored that in the equation, but we felt there were a lot of positives and that's why we decided to extend him."
With Dennis Wideman traded to Florida in the Nathan Horton deal, the Bruins need Ference to stay healthy now more than ever. Wideman was second only to Zdeno Chara in ice time on the Bruins last year, and his departure leaves a void in Boston's defensive top four. A full season of Dennis Seidenberg will help, and the Bruins are counting on the continued development of Johnny Boychuk after a strong finish to last season.
But someone out of the group of Ference, Mark Stuart and Matt Hunwick will also have to step up to assume top-four minutes as well. Chiarelli appeared to be anticipating Ference's ability to play that kind of expanded role when he re-signed him.
"He can play at a multitude of different spots, which is why he's attractive to us," said Chiarelli. "He can play in that top four, he can play in the bottom pair. His game lends itself to certain different roles. He's versatile, and that's why he's attractive also."
Ference just has to prove he can play those roles on a nightly basis and stay in the lineup for a full season again. Friday, Aug. 20: Will Blake Wheeler be able to produce consistently this year?
Sunday, Aug. 22: What will Gregory Campbell bring to the team?
NESN.com will answer one Bruins question every day in August.
Friday, Aug. 20: Will Blake Wheeler be able to produce consistently this year?
Sunday, Aug. 22: What will Gregory Campbell bring to the team?
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