BOSTON – The Bruins were engaged in some high-stakes gambling relying on aging veterans Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg as their two most established defensemen headed into this season. Now they’ve already lost one of those big bets before the season even started.
The 34-year-old Seidenberg will be out of the lineup until Thanksgiving as he undergoes back surgery on Thursday for a herniated disc, leaving the Bruins severely bereft of top-4 defenseman on their NHL roster. As it stands now, barring any moves in training camp or the early season, the Black and Gold have exactly one defenseman who has averaged 20-plus minutes of ice time per night in his NHL career.
And that D-man is Zdeno Chara, who is going to turn 39 this season and is coming off an injury-plagued campaign of his own. So, the loss of Seidenberg, who averaged 22:06 of ice time and played all 82 games last season, leaves a gaping hole in the Bruins lineup for the first two months of the season and has B’s management mulling their next move.
“Certainly I had high expectations with how he could fit into our group,” said GM Don Sweeney. “Players do take a long time to recover from an ACL surgery, you know? The way Dennis is built [is] to get back and do things as hard as he can. It’s no surprise he was able to play in  games last year despite coming off the surgery.
“I think he felt good about where his training was overall, and he was as excited about the [upcoming] year as we were, and with how he was going to fit into the group. It’s a void that internally we’re trying to assess. As I’ve always said I’ll continue to talk to other teams, and [discuss] people that may or may not be available to see if we need to fill that void.”
Dustin Byfuglien will be the biggest name in any trade rumors with the Bruins, and had been even before Seidenberg went down. But the price will be high for the All-Star defenseman: it starts with a package similar to the first round pick, roster player (Martin Jones) and top prospect (Colin Miller) that the Bruins received for Milan Lucic, and is probably higher now given that the B’s are perceived to be in desperate straits.
There are other names readily available right now, of course, and most of them aren’t very palatable: Nikita Nikitin, Rob Scuderi, Luke Schenn and Andrew MacDonald just to name a few. It may be that Sweeney and the Bruins will need to get into the regular season to evaluate what they’ve got, and hope the whiff of desperation dissipates.
In the short term, the Bruins will look within their own house to fill up that Seidenberg void. Kevan Miller was the first player prominently mentioned by Sweeney, and that makes sense given his size, strength and willingness to play the defensive warrior role that the underrated Seidenberg was always relied upon to fill. Miller is normally a right side D-man, but said he has played on the left side in 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill in Providence in the past. He also did so a little bit with Johnny Boychuk two years ago when Seidenberg was gone with ACL surgery.
So, Miller could bring some of the same qualities that Seidenberg provided, but he’s never been the same kind of minutes workhorse, and isn’t nearly as adept as the German defenseman is at playing both left and right sides on defense.
“When the season starts, that’s when we have to continue to evaluate [the defensemen] as a group,” said Sweeney. “They’re going to get an opportunity to play here while I evaluate and canvas what may or may not [be available] in other teams, and see whether there’s an opportunity to add.
“If not then we feel confident that we have a strong group of guys. Maybe some of them are inexperienced, but I think Kevan Miller getting back in there – and being healthy – will bring a lot to the table in a similar fashion to Dennis.”
Maybe the 27-year-old Miller can step in and hold the fort for a couple of months. He missed 41 games last season with an injury that required shoulder surgery. Maybe Torey Krug and Adam McQuaid are ready to make the jump into becoming top-4 defensemen, and will also help in shouldering the workload burden.
Maybe Chara found the fountain of youth in his native Slovakia over the summer and can handle a couple of months turning back the back to 30 minutes of ice time every game while staying healthy and effective.
Maybe a couple of legitimate NHL top-4 defensemen emerge from the young candidates in Colin Miller, Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow, and thrive while being thrown into the NHL fire at the start of this season. Maybe Matt Irwin can step in and become a staple among the Bruins defensemen group, and build on a promising start to his first B’s training camp after scoring two preseason PP goals vs. the New Jersey Devils on Sunday night.
All of these things are legit possibilities to be sure when it comes to the Black and Gold. Some of them might actually happen with the opportunity being given to each of the other eight D-men that should start the season in Boston with Seidenberg on injured reserve. That’s the message that Claude Julien was preaching on Wednesday to a group that already had question marks after not replacing the traded Dougie Hamilton this summer.
“There are a lot of things with this team [more] than the one injury. Dennis Seidenberg is a real important part of our team, but we’ve played without him many times with injuries here,” said Julien, who received a full 82 games out of Seidenberg last season while the veteran returned from right knee surgery. “So I’m just more or less looking at doing what we need to do here with the guys that we have, and not so much what I’m going to miss about [Seidenberg]. [It’s about] what am I going to get from the other guys that are going to be replacing him that’s most important.”
Clearly, the Bruins will be looking for many to step up in Seidenberg’s absence, and want the other D-men to view this as a great opportunity. But there are a lot of “maybes” among the B’s defensemen right now with one of their most dependable guys gone for eight weeks, and that is not a pathway to success in the NHL.