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The defensive corps performed well above expectations last season for the Eastern Conference-leading Bruins, and heading into this year’s campaign, the blue line brigade hopes to continue their dominating ways. After a season in which the B’s led the entire NHL with a strong 2.32 goals against average, the team is coming into this season looking to prove that what we saw last year wasn’t just a one-year fluke.
The offseason brought change to the group who will do the dirty work for Boston, as we saw the free agent departures of Shane Hnidy to Minnesota and Steve Montador to Buffalo, while a surprising trade of veteran Aaron Ward to Carolina highlighted what was regarded as a relatively quiet summer for GM Peter Chiarelli’s Bruins.
Now, we take a closer look at the defensemen who will suit up for Boston in the upcoming season, a season with the highest of expectations.
Where else can you start, but with the captain: “Big Z,” Zdeno Chara. Last season, teamed up with the departing Ward, Chara led the way along the blue line in Boston’s top defensive pairing, ranking among the NHL’s defensive leaders in several major categories, including 19 goals (4th among NHL defensemen), 11 power play goals (3rd), 216 shots (5th), and 26:04 minutes of average ice time per game, good for sixth in the league. These were all numbers that led to Chara’s first career Norris Trophy win, an honor some say he should have been awarded in prior years as well.
At 6-foot-9, Chara’s intimidating stature acts as the backbone of the Bruins defense, and team as a whole. His leadership abilities have earned him respect from the top of the roster, on down. There’s no doubt the 32-year-old Slovak will look to build on his best year as a pro, with an even better season this year.
In an effort to fill the big shoes of Aaron Ward, GM Peter Chiarelli freed up cap space in order to acquire journeyman Derek Morris, whose puck-moving abilities and right-handed shot should pair well with Chara atop the Bruins’ defensive depth chart. Morris, an 11-year vet who split time last season with the Phoenix Coyotes and New York Rangers, has been trending downward in recent seasons, only posting a combined 5-15-20 line last year with his two squads, career lows.
However, Boston will give Morris every opportunity to buck that trend, as it’s likely that he will see significant time on the Bruins’ power play unit at the right point. Chiarelli is hopeful he can regain the play-making ability he showed earlier in his career, during his time with Calgary and Colorado.
Early on in Dennis Wideman’s Bruins career, many thought Boston had been on the bad end of a deal that saw young Brad Boyes, an exciting winger, shipped to St. Louis as he entered the prime of his career. But the 26-year-old Wideman has certainly earned his keep after last year’s performance, posting career highs in goals (13), assists (37) and plus/minus (+32), and providing the B’s great blue line depth and balance.
Coming into this season, Wideman will surely be looked upon to step up his game even further, likely captaining the team’s second defensive pairing and second power play unit from the point.
Health has been the major reason for Andrew Ference’s disappointing Bruins career thus far. After two post-lockout seasons that saw Ference miss only 2 regular season games, his last two campaigns have been riddled with injuries, leaving him with appearing in 59 games in ’07-’08, and just 47 last season, finishing up with a tough groin injury. When healthy, Ference has played well, especially when being paired with Dennis Wideman.
If the 30-year-old Edmonton-born defenseman can find a way to stay on the ice in what will be his third full season with Boston, he could provide a steady veteran blue line presence the Bruins can rely on throughout the year. He just can’t break down like he has so often recently.
While Ference has been the most fragile of the bunch, Mark Stuart has to be regarded as the workhorse. Stuart hasn’t missed a single game in the last two full seasons, seasons in which the young blue liner has improved vastly as his career continues to progress. Stuart’s style won’t light up the scoreboard too often, but his lockdown defensive skills are perfect for Boston’s third line of defense. As Stuart continues to mature, look for him to contribute even more to the team’s overall success.
One of the most applauded moves of the offseason for the Bruins was the re-signing of young defenseman Matt Hunwick, who is coming back to Boston on a salary cap-friendly, multi-year deal. In his first full season with the big club, Hunwick registered a very respectable 6-21-27 stat line with a plus/minus rating of +15 in 53 games. His postseason was unfortunately cut short after just one game, due to a spleen injury in the Montreal series that forced him to miss the rest of Boston’s playoff run.
Play-making ability and versatility are among the strengths of this young Michigan-bred up-and-comer, as Hunwick did spend some time last season on the wing as a forward, during some of Boston’s more injury-riddled stretches of the year. Hunwick is poised for what could be a breakout season, and there’s no doubt all eyes will be on the youngster to build on a strong start to his NHL career.
Boston’s depth at the defenseman position could be one of the big questions heading into the 2009-10 season. While the top of the roster is strong, the middle and bottom could be considered a bit thin by some. It remains to be seen whether the Phil Kessel situation could end up resulting in a roster shake-up before the season begins, whether it be to clear space to sign Kessel, or to deal him away and get other players in return. There’s no doubt that a puck-moving defenseman still remains high on the Bruins’ shopping list. But, beyond any preseason swaps, the hope is that the depth of Boston’s back line is strong enough, with the recent additions of players like Drew Fata and Andy Wozniewski, along with the development of prospects Andrew Bodnarchuk, Jeff Penner, and Johnny Boychuk, who will likely vie for the 7th defenseman position this preseason.
The road ahead for the Bruins looks promising for the upcoming season. It won’t be easy, as their success last year will surely put a target on their backs from upcoming teams throughout the 82-game schedule. No one will take this Bruins team lightly, and rightfully they shouldn’t. They are the odds-on favorites to repeat as division champions, but Bruins fans everywhere are hoping for lot more than that this year. It’s “Stanley Cup or Bust” time in Boston, and come June, here’s hoping we are all hearing about the city’s parade plans, to honor the end of a 38-year Cup drought.
Tags: Aaron Ward, Andrew Bodnarchuk, Andrew Ference, Andy Wozniewski, Bruins, Dennis Wideman, Derek Morris, Drew Fata, Jeff Penner, Johnny Boychuk, Mark Stuart, Matt Hunwick, Peter Chiarelli, Phil Kessel, Shane Hnidy, Steve Montador, Zdeno Chara