They led the league in 2008-09, allowing just 2.32 goals a game, and last year ranked second with 2.33 goals against. Some stellar goaltending from Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask had a lot to do with that, but coach Claude Julien’s system and the guys on the blue line that help implement it also deserve plenty of credit.
Having been so successful at holding opposing offenses in check, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Bruins brought back nearly their entire defense corps.
So how will this very familiar looking crew of blueliners stack up in the 2010-11 season?
Who’s Back: Virtually everyone. Captain Zdeno Chara is the centerpiece as always. He’ll look to get back to his Norris Trophy form of two years ago after seeing his production slip last season as he dealt with a hand injury most of the year. Of course, even at less than full strength Chara is better than most, and he logged a team-high 25:22 a night and led all Bruins defensemen with 7-37-44 totals. That was still a far cry from the 19-31-50 line he put up the previous season, but with his hand healthy a few more of his booming slap shots should find the back of the net this year.
Chara will also be helped by having Dennis Seidenberg around for a full season. That pairing clicked immediately after Seidenberg arrived in a deadline deal with Florida, and the Bruins made sure Seidenberg (32 points, league-high 215 blocked shots) will be sticking around as they re-signed him to a four-year, $13-million deal this summer.
Johnny Boychuk also excelled playing alongside Chara in the playoffs after Seidenberg suffered a lacerated forearm, and Boychuk was also re-signed before the start of free agency. He will play a more prominent role this year after starting last season as the seventh defenseman.
The Bruins also need more from third-year man Matt Hunwick, who struggled much of last year but started to turn things around late in the season. He adds some much-needed speed and mobility to the back end, but will have to be more productive offensively after not scoring a goal in his final 47 games last year.
Mark Stuart will provide a steadying presence and some physical play, and try to avoid the injuries that derailed his 2009-10 season when he suffered a broken sternum, broken finger and a hand infection.
Andrew Ference had another injury-plagued season of his own, playing just 51 games and undergoing groin surgery after the season for the second straight year. Ference is an effective player when in the lineup, but that hasn’t been nearly often enough in recent years as he’s missed 89 games in the last three seasons. Those injury histories make the seventh defenseman role more important in Boston than most places.
Adam McQuaid has the inside track to retaining that job after a solid NHL debut last season, as he provided some strong physical play in 19 regular-season and nine playoff games.
Who’s Gone: The big departure is Dennis Wideman, who was sent to Florida in the Nathan Horton deal. Wideman was a lightning rod for criticism last year as he struggled for most of the season, dropping from 50 points and a plus-32 in 2008-09 to just 30 points and a minus-14 last year. Still, Wideman got back on track late and led the Bruins in playoff scoring with 12 points in 13 games and was a plus-3. He was also one of the only offensive threats Boston had on the blue line, capable of leading the transition game.
The Bruins will need Hunwick, Boychuk and Seidenberg to chip in more in that department this season. Also gone is Andy Wozniewski, who put up 10-33-43 totals in 68 games in Providence but was scoreless in two games with the big club. He signed with EV Zug of the Swiss National League. Drew Fata, who made a surprising run at a roster spot in camp but struggled mightily after being sent down to Providence (4 points, minus-9 in 27 games), remains unsigned.
Who’s New: With the Bruins focusing on re-signing their own free agents, they didn’t add anyone likely to make an impact in Boston this offseason. Veteran minor leaguer Nathan McIver was signed and could see spot duty if injuries strike, as he has played 36 games in the NHL with Vancouver and Anaheim. He’s more likely to add some leadership and toughness to the Providence blue line. The Bruins also acquired the rights to Boston University defenseman David Warsofsky at the draft in exchange for Vladimir Sobotka. Warsofsky is small (5-foot-9, 170 pounds) but skilled (12-11-23 in 34 games at BU last year), and will continue to work on his game with the Terriers this season.
In the System: Warsofsky is one of many skilled but undersized defensemen the Bruins have added to the organization. They also traded for Michigan defenseman Steven Kampfer (5-foot-10, 188 pounds) and Ohio State’s Matthew Bartkowski (a veritable giant at 6-foot-1, 196 pounds). They join Providence holdovers Andrew Bodnarchuk (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) and Jeff Penner (5-foot-10, 191 pounds), who both made their NHL debuts last season with brief callups to Boston.
Also coming to Providence is highly-regarded Russian prospect Yury Alexandrov, who has played the past two seasons in the KHL. Despite that pro experience and his skills as a puck-mover, Alexandrov likely will need some time in the AHL to adjust to the North American game. Alexandrov’s arrival has already led to one change, as a check of his passport led Bruins officials to realize they had been spelling his first name incorrectly as “Yuri” since he was drafted in 2006.
Ryan Button is another skilled blueliner still in junior, while Tommy Cross is trying to put his past injury problems behind him at Boston College. Cody Wild was also acquired by trade last season and could contribute in Providence, and the Bruins might finally have found some size for the blue line down there with Ryan Donald (6-foot-3, 205 pounds), a Yale product who earned a contract after a solid showing as an invitee at July’s Development Camp, and AHL veteran Joe Rullier (6-foot-3, 230 pounds), who has been invited to Boston’s training camp on a tryout basis.
Roster Prediction: With seven players returning, the defense appears pretty well set. Chara, Seidenberg, Boychuk, Ference, Stuart and Hunwick are all known commodities who should be on the opening night roster barring injuries or trades.
McQuaid will face a challenge for the seventh defenseman role, but the job is his to lose and although he is on a two-way deal this season, he would have to clear waivers to be sent down. Unless he really struggles in camp, the Bruins aren’t likely to risk losing him that way, as they had enough faith in his potential to make the second year of his new contract a one-way deal. Bodnarchuk and Penner could see spot duty with the big club again if injuries strike.
The wild card is Alexandrov. He didn’t impress at the Development Camp, but if he adjusts well to the North American game in Providence, he could find himself in Boston before the end of the season.
NESN.com will analyze a different position on the Bruins roster every day this week.
Friday, Sept. 3: Left Wing
Sunday, Sept. 5: Goalies
Friday, Sept. 3: Left Wing
Sunday, Sept. 5: Goalies
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