PROVIDENCE -- While there's wide-ranging disagreement on just how radically the Bruins roster needs changing, there's consensus on where exactly they require immediate improvement.
It would be stunning if their back end looks the same to start next season as it did at the end of the last one, with 39-year-old Zdeno Chara headlining a group that was overmatched all year.
The Bruins finished ranked 19th in the NHL in defense with 2.8 goals allowed per game, and there were many nights when it wasn’t pretty defensively. That might be a bit of an understatement; sports-writing hyperbole like dumpster fire or bleep show would probably be more appropriate. The D-corps was the soft, white underbelly of a team that should have been in the playoffs based on its offensive production, solid special-teams play and adequate goaltending.
General manager Don Sweeney more than hinted at his end-of-season press conference that upgrades along the blue line will be investigated.
“Trades in general are a challenge," he said. "[You're] going to have to find a trading partner to get good players. You can’t just start giving up good players or younger players or future assets in the form of draft picks, as everybody knows. But the calls will be made to try and establish that. I look at our overall defense and the new player integration and what their expectations will be going forward.
“We had players that had been in our system and have done very well in our system. We had some injuries early on, allowing that opportunity for some younger players that had been in our group. Hopefully [they can] grow and be able to mature as NHL players, and in some cases establish themselves as NHL players. You’re going to find that in almost every team. That eventually, you know, a player gets an opportunity and it’s up to him to continue to take advantage of that opportunity. Sometimes it happens and you end up with a long career, and sometimes it doesn’t.
"It’s incumbent upon me to make sure that I’m in a position where we have depth when we go through rough patches, or you go out and acquire players that can help you. We have gaps in that area. We’re not a team that’s playing for the Stanley Cup. We clearly have areas that we need to improve upon. At times we didn’t transition the puck as well as we would’ve liked out of our own end, and other times our forward group wasn’t . . . about shot blocking. So it’s a team-wide concept.”
While the overall numbers were solid for Chara, it's obvious he can no longer average close to 25 minutes a night as a No. 1 D-man matched up against the other team’s best players. The fact Torey Krug was second on the B’s in ice time (21:37) among all players is a testament to his overall improvemen, but also speaks to just how desperate Boston was for another couple of top-4 defensemen bodies.
Dennis Seidenberg has been a defensive warrior of the first order, but one has to shudder to think the B’s are on the hook for two more years at $4 million per season for a 35-year-old player on his last legs.
In short, they never replaced Johnny Boychuk and Dougie Hamilton after trading both players awa, and that’s a reflection on a barren development system (Joe Morrow on his third organization and Zach Trotman as the last player taken in the 2010 draft) and failures of current B’s management (failing to move up and secure Noah Hanifin at the draft, and providing just John-Michael Liles as a stopgap solution at the trade deadline).
When team president Cam Neely ticked off the goals for this summer, upgrading the defense was “at the top of the list.”
“I don’t have any concerns about [Sweeney’s] work ethic to try and improve the club over the offseason,” he said. “We know what our back end is all about, so we need to find, if we can . . . we need to really improve that area of our team. We’ve got a lot of good young forward prospects up and coming. Whether they make an impact this year or not remains to be seen, but our back end is something that I know [Sweeney] is going to be very focused on.”
It won’t be easy to improve since each of the other 29 teams fully aware of Boston’s blue-line woes, and so many of them are in a similar search mode for young defensive help. Still, the Bruins must hope that a player like Jacob Trouba, Matthew Dumba or Sami Vatanen prices themselves out of organizations with some defense depth. Or that a player like Jonas Brodin or Kevin Shattenkirk becomes available via some good, old-fashioned salary trouble.
But it’s not that easy.
They’ll need to be willing to pony up big money for these players sight unseen in some cases, and give up major assets in all cases. That means first-round picks, that means prospects, and that means a talented young player from their NHL roster like Ryan Spooner, Frank Vatrano or David Pastrnak. One would expect Pastrnak, 19, would be an untouchable, but he's the one the B's will be asked about the most this summer.
The bottom line: Getting a talented, young D-man from another team won’t come easily or cheaply. Thee Bruins instead will need to develop a few more defensemen within their own system as well, and hope they uncover a few diamonds in the rough like the Blackhawks did with Duncan Keith (54th overall pick in the 2002 draft) and Niklas Hjalmarsson (108th overall pick in 2005).
That’s easier said than done, but the Bruins got an encouraging glimpse of the future over the last few weeks with 19-year-old Brandon Carlo hopping on board for the AHL playoffs.
The 6-foot-5 Carlo was Boston’s top second-round pick last summer, and might be the D-man with the biggest upside in the organization, given his size and strength component. He showed off all of those skills while surviving in the heat of an AHL playoff game last weekend as a teenager straight out of junior hockey, and showed the same promise during an impressive stint as a top-pairing guy for Team USA in last winter’s World Junior tournament.
Carlo isn’t going to dazzle with end-to-end rushes or probably ever be a power-play quarterback at the NHL level. But he showed off good instincts at both ends of the ice, made good decisions with the puck, had a strong first outlet pass from the D-zone and didn’t panic during the pressure moments in the overtimes of an elimination game on Saturday night. Carlo didn’t figure into the scoring in the eventual 5-4 loss that eliminated Providence from the best-of-five series against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but he did enough to impress P-Bruins coach Butch Cassidy.
“He’s got good composure. He plays well,” said Cassidy. “Brandon is just a guy that needs to play a little harder with the puck in certain instances. It’s getting his shot through, and he had a couple of plays that came back at us quickly because he didn’t make a hard play. It wasn’t a bad play, but it just wasn’t a hard enough play to get it past the first fore-checker.
“That’s a part of his game where [he could use] a little more urgency in those areas. But he skates well, he defends well, he’s rarely out of position and he’s a good battler. He’s going to be a great player, but it’s fine-tuning his game with the puck and being a man, you know? He’s not. He’s 19, so he’ll learn that quickly when he’s around men. This was a good taste of it here. They might not have been NHL men we were playing [in Scranton], but those were men out there.”
Carlo can go back to juniors as an overage player next season, but the teenager will get a long look at NHL training camp. It's not out of the realm that he could compete for a bottom-pair spot on the Boston roster this fall if some of last season's failed blue-line group are pushed out.
Unfortunately for Providence, puck-moving defenseman Colin Miller wasn’t able to play on Saturday night as well. He was scratched from the elimination game because of an injury. Miller, 23, is a bit of a lightning rod after last season: he showed enough promise at the NHL level to finish sixth among all rookie D-men in scoring, and was in the lineup for the last couple of games when Boston badly needed a win. He can pass the puck, shoot the puck and execute a tape-to-tape outlet pass that seemed to bedevil many of the other blue-collar defensemen on the Boston roster this past season. But he also seemed to lose his confidence last season right around the time he was tossed off the NHL roster for the Winter Classic, and then was a healthy scratch much of the time when he returned as Claude Julien was clearly at odds with his defensive zone work.
There’s no doubt Miller is still a work in progress in many ways, but anybody could see he had greater upside over the long haul than Trotman or Morrow. Miller was the perfect example of a player who has top-4 potential as a defenseman at the very least, but the Bruins will need to live through the mistakes in order to fully develop him. He may not develop into a top-pairing candidate, but his sideways development was one of the big missteps of Julien and his coaching staff when he had to be sent to Providence in the second half of the season.
It also underscores the struggles that a growing list of “puck-moving defenseman” have experienced under Julien during his 10 years in Boston. Dennis Wideman, Tomas Kaberle, Andrej Meszaros, Derek Morris and Joe Corvo never really worked out, Hamilton always seemed to chafe under a B’s system that put the clamps on his offensive instincts, and voiced plenty of enthusiasm playing in a wide-open Flames system once he got to Calgary.
Matt Bartkowski had by far his best NHL season with 6 goals and 18 points in 80 games after leaving Julien’s doghouse for the Vancouver Canucks.
Krug made advancements in becoming a top-4 defenseman this season in Boston, but also saw the offensive component to his game make a regression in the process with just four goals and a woeful 1.5 percent shooting percentage. It’s stunning to think that Kevan Miller, of all people, scored more goals than Krug this season
So it’s fair to ask if Miller’s stops and starts as a rookie NHL D-man are more the fault of the actual player, or the coaching staff that seems to have its share of troubles successfully working with traditional puck-moving D-men. The fact that Doug Houda, the man chiefly responsible for working with the defensemen, was the only one fired in the days following the season would seem to mean it’s the latter rather than the former.
The Bruins know they must be better on the defensive end of things, and that they can’t survive with a substandard blue line group like the one they had last year. They need more talent, and less bottom pairing candidates like Miller, Krug and Adam McQuaid being asked to do way, way too much on a game-to-game basis.
It’s up to Sweeney to execute the needed deal, or deals, for quality defenseman that he failed to accomplish to glaring degree last season. It’s up to Julien and his staff to find new, innovative ways to develop young defensemen like Miller, Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk, Robbie O’Gara, Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril if the Bruins are going to find their own back end answers this season, and in the next couple of years moving ahead.
If both of these things don’t happen in short order, the Bruins will be uttering the same sorry words of failure and regret again a year from now with even fewer ears willing to understandably and empathetically listen.