While the Bruins boosted their offense from dead last in the NHL in 2009-10 to fifth in 2010-11, they didn't do it at the expense of their defensive responsibilities. For the third straight season, Boston finished in the top two in team goals-against average, with its 2.30 GAA the Bruins' lowest mark in that span. And they dropped it even further to a league-best 2.12 in the playoffs.
Much of that had to do with Tim Thomas' historic season in net, but the guys playing in front of him deserve plenty of credit as well. And the good news for the Bruins is that blue-line corps returns largely intact this season, though there are some youngsters in the pipeline who could be challenging for spots in the not-too-distant future. So how does the Bruins defense stack up for the 2011-12 season?
All but one regular from last year's playoff lineup returns on defense. The biggest key, both literally and figuratively, is captain Zdeno Chara, who further established himself as one of the league's elite defenders last season. He led the league with a plus-33 rating and was a Norris Trophy finalist, and after overcoming an illness and dehydration that sidelined him for a game in the opening round, Chara raised his game even more in the playoffs.
That elevated play for Chara coincided with being paired with Dennis Seidenberg, who missed the previous year's playoffs with a sliced tendon in his wrist, but showed this spring just how valuable he can be when the stakes are raised. Seidenberg was solid throughout the regular season, but really was a monster in the playoffs, logging huge minutes, contributing at both ends of the ice and forming the league's top shutdown pairing with Chara.The Bruins will have to hope that Seidenberg will carry that level of play into the regular season this year.
Also returning is veteran Andrew Ference, who also elevated his play considerably in the postseason with 4-6-10 totals after scoring just 3-12-15 in the regular season. Ference contributed all year though, always sticking up for a teammate when needed and providing leadership in the room as well. Injuries will always be a concern with the way Ference plays, but he managed to play 95 games last year between the regular season and playoffs, and didn't miss a game in the postseason. Johnny Boychuk had a bit of a roller coaster season in his second NHL campaign. He suffered a broken arm early in the year and never quite recaptured the form he showed late in the previous season. He was still a valuable contributor though with his physical style and booming shot from the point.
Adam McQuaid followed in Boychuk's footsteps, going from the team's spare defenseman at the start of the season to a dependable regular by the end of the year. McQuaid supplies a healthy dose of toughness to the blue line and while he's primarily a stay-at-home defender, he showed flashes of an ability to chip in offensively as well. Rookie Steven Kampfer found his way into the lineup for 38 games in the regular season, and added some welcome speed and offensive ability (5-5-10 totals). He'll likely begin this season as the seventh defenseman, but he is definitely in the Bruins' long-term plans, and as Boychuk and McQuaid have shown in the last two years, that extra blueliner can be pressed into service quickly.
The Bruins lost two defensemen added late in the year to address different needs. They paid a heavy price (prospect Joe Colborne and first- and second-round picks) to acquire Tomas Kaberle from the Maple Leafs to add the offensive puck-mover they've long sought, but Kaberle failed to live up to expectations. He struggled at times in his own zone and couldn't kick-start a struggling power play, which actually became even worse with Kaberle quarterbacking it. Boston went just 7-for-66 on the power play (10.6 percent) in 24 games in the regular season after the trade, then 10-for-88 (11.4 percent) in the postseason. Kaberle did play better as the postseason wore on, but he also saw his ice time reduced late in the Bruins' Cup run. Despite his struggles, he managed to land a three-year, $12.75 million deal from Carolina as a free agent, keeping his cap hit at $4.25 million. The Bruins are better off without him at that price.
Boston also parted ways with veteran Shane Hnidy, who was signed late in the year for some added depth and insurance. He didn't play until the end of the season after rehabbing from a shoulder injury, but did get in three games, then played three more in the playoffs, albeit with extremely limited ice time. Hnidy opted for retirement this summer and landed a job as an analyst on the radio broadcasts for the newly relocated Jets in his native Winnipeg. Also leaving was big Slovakian blueliner Boris Valabik, who came to the Bruins as part of the trade with Atlanta that netted Rich Peverley for Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart. Valabik finished the year in Providence and signed as a free agent with Pittsburgh this summer.
To replace Kaberle, the Bruins traded for veteran Joe Corvo, who ironically had become expendable in Carolina when the Hurricanes signed Kaberle. Like Kaberle, Corvo brings an offensive dimension to the blue line, but he's a far more willing shooter whose style should be a better fit in Boston, especially on the power play. He's also a capable penalty killer and Claude Julien should be able to trust him in more situations.
The Bruins also added another highly skilled defender in the draft, though ninth overall pick Dougie Hamilton will likely need at least one more year of junior to bulk up and hone his skills. Boston also drafted Milton Academy's Rob O'Gara in the fifth round and signed Marc Cantin as an undrafted free agent out of the OHL.
In the System:
Hamilton has the most potential of the defensemen coming up in the Bruins' organization, but there are a number of blueliners closer to contributing in Boston. Matt Bartkowski spent the bulk of his first pro season in Providence but did get into a half-dozen games with the big club and was on hand for the playoff run as a Black Ace. Boston University products Colby Cohen, who was acquired from Colorado for Matt Hunwick last November, and David Warsofsky should also push for call-ups if injuries strike, while Ryan Button is a skilled puck-mover turning pro after four seasons in the WHL. He'll join holdovers Andrew Bodnarchuk and Nathan McIver, a veteran who provides some toughness, on the Providence blue line. Zach McKelvie, finally cleared to play after completing his service obligations in the Army, could also compete for a spot in Providence, but the West Point product may have to start in the ECHL after two years away from the game. Yury Alexandrov will be returning to his native Russia to play in the KHL this year after playing in Providence last season, but the Bruins retain his rights and haven't given up on the talented youngster. Fellow Russian Maxim Chudinov, Boston College's Tommy Cross and Lake Superior State's Zach Trotman remain in the pipeline as well.
With Corvo stepping into Kaberle's spot and the rest of the regulars from last year back, the defense should be pretty well set heading into camp with a top six of Chara, Seidenberg, Ference, Boychuk, McQuaid and Corvo. Kampfer has the inside track on the seventh defenseman role, though he could be pushed by Bartkowski, who actually lasted longer in camp last year, or Cohen, who played three games in Colorado last season before his trade to the Bruins.
NESN.com Bruins beat writer Douglas Flynn will analyze a different position on the Bruins roster every day this week.
Thursday, Sept. 8: Left Wings
Saturday, Sept. 10: Goalies
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