As the Boston Bruins gear up for the coming season, not a lot will have changed along the blueline. Barring new injuries, the top four Defensemen will be Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk and Dougie Hamilton. If these top four can stay healthy and be available come playoff time, it is likely that the Bruins will go as deep in the playoffs as any other team. Without even one of them, you have to start second guessing if they can advance past each round. This past season we clearly saw that without Seidenberg, the Bruins can only do so much. What's different than last year, was at the start of the season, we only had a top three and a number of unknowns. All of them are capable of playing between 22-25 minutes a game on any given night and play at a high level. There are only 4 other teams entering the new season with a comparable top four and those teams are LA, Chicago, NY Rangers and Pittsburgh. Some may add in Tampa as well, but their top four are unproven and haven't played together before. Why is this significant? Because since the Blackhawks first won the Stanley Cup in 2010, there have only been three teams that have won the Cup and all of them did it on the backs of a top four defense that stayed healthy and played big minutes. Enough said for now!
What makes the Bruins top four unique and different from the other 4-5 teams? Placement does; the Bruins still can rely on Chara to play those big minutes and be the number one defenseman. On the other teams they all have an equivalent to Chara. What makes the Bruins different right now, is that depending on any given day, the other three could all be a top number two defenseman on any other team. Hamilton's talent is on the rise. He has the potential to be a number one defense on this team in 2-3 years, but on any of the bottom ten teams in the NHL in 2014, he would already be the number one defenseman. The difference is Hamilton is emerging and emerging fast, on a team with terrific mentors and should continue his development in leaps and bounds as long as this group is together.
Lets get to the meat of it. Zdeno Chara has been the most dominating defensive defenseman for the last ten years. While his age is starting to show wear and cracks, he's still unbelievably dominant in the defensive zone and plays a well rounded game in all situations. He plays against other teams top lines, he plays shorthanded and has unique versatility on the power play. In 77 games last year he had 17 goals, 23 assists for 40 points and a +25 with 10 power play goals. At 37 he is still playing right at his career average for points per season and piling up the time on ice minutes, (TOI), at 24:39 per game. If the Bruins can continue to manage his ice time, he can play 3-4 more years. He has been remarkably healthy playing an average of 79 games per season for the last 10 years. Including his intangibles as the Captain and his intimidation factor at 6'9"; he's at the top of every other teams list when they play the Bruins as the key player to neutralize. I give Zdeno an A for the previous season. He can't do more unless the Bruins win a cup and he's been nothing less than consistent in every area of his game for many years.
The most appreciated player on the Bruins, when he's not in the line-up; Dennis Seidenberg! No other player goes so unnoticed when he's playing than Dennis. But when he's not playing, things go wrong fast and it's obvious like a sore thumb. If there's one player that must absolutely be healthy going into the playoffs for the team to have success, it's Seidenberg! He plays the dirty minutes, the down in the trenches minutes, the Shorthanded minutes, the minutes at the end of a game and period. When the other team has possession of the puck, he's in a lane in the way. Behind his own net, he always has body contact with someone. Don't try to skate past him down the slot, it's unwise and perhaps stupid. If you let him guide you to the sideboards he'll allow you a poor quality shot. He's never emotional on the ice, he's determined. He has a hard shot he rarely uses and racks up hits and minutes like penny pinchers counting pennies. I do believe if the Bruins had gotten to the Conference Finals, he would have played last season and he would have made a huge difference by injecting some much needed confidence in his teammates and fear in his opponents. While he played in only 34 games last season with modest totals of 1 goal, 9 assists and a +11; he mentored Hamiliton until his injury and was mostly responsible for Hamiliton's improvements in his own end. I give him a B+ for 34 games and he can improve his grade by staying healthy for the coming season and playoffs.
Johnny Boychuk brings to my mind an old hockey saying from the 1970's. "Farm Tough!" He gets hit, whacked and bumped constantly game in, game out. He never complains, he dishes it back, he roams the defensive zone like Robocop!. After Seidenberg went down to injury, he was asked to do more and play more minutes than any other defenseman on the team. He did a fantastic job that was only limited by his experience. Perhaps if Dennis didn't get injured, we might have never seen the game he brought the second half of the season or seen how much more he is capable of doing. As the team moves forward this year and worries about who can play minutes that you want to rest Chara during, it's Boychuk! He is the teams best shot blocker and uses his feet well in front of the net to not only block, but deflect pucks away from the net. It's an unusual skill but very efficient as a control tool to kill opportunities for other teams. I give Johnny a solid A and hope the Bruins can find the cap space to keep him moving forward as he has arrived at his peak this past season and should be Seidenberg's replacement in 2-3 years for time and minutes.
Doug Hamilton is the heir apparent to carry on the great legacy of top defenseman in the league and on the Bruins roster. We all got to see his offensive skills this past season grow and have come to understand his subtle ability to transition from defense to offense with a stride or two. The biggest area to improve in the coming season is in his own zone. We saw glimpses of how hard he can hit and how his game game improves as his confidence grows. A simple 10% improvement in his game this coming year will vault him into a top 20 defensemen in the league this year and he'll continue to climb up this ladder over the next 2-3 years and will be a top 5 in the league player. He reminds me quite a bit of Chris Pronger his first 3 seasons as he grew his game by fire and in year 4 started to see that mean edge emerge that made him a top performer in St.Louis. I give Dougie a B+, with lots of room to grow. One prediction here, Hamiliton might be the player that breaks out during the playoffs next year and lifts the team to a higher level.
Well I haven't covered the entire teams defense and my next article will be about them and I think I'll save defensive prospects for a separate article to come later.
Until Next Time!