Bruins D-man spot up for grabs before postseason

Bruins D-man spot up for grabs before postseason
April 1, 2014, 7:15 pm
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(USA Today Sports Images)

WILMINGTON – With seven games remaining, the only real lineup spot up for playoff grabs with the Boston Bruins is one of the six places on the B’s defenseman corps.

When the Bruins dealt for Andrej Meszaros at the beginning of March, they brought on board a veteran seventh defenseman to compete for one of the top six spots along with Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk and the four young blueliners. So they knew, if they were lucky, things would be crowded to start the Stanley Cup journey.

Meszaros hasn’t been perfect as he’s taken a crash course in the Bruins system, but he’s also produced in big minutes at multiple spots in the lineup with five points (2 goals, 3 assists) and a plus-7 in nine games for the Black and Gold. He’s shown the ability to play both the left and right side, and been adept alongside Zdeno Chara or Johnny Boychuk along the top two pairings.

He’s made mistakes in the defensive zone, but there are also some things to like about his game.

Chara and Boychuk are clearly locks as the veteran workhorses, and their health is vital to Boston’s playoff hopes. Torey Krug should be another automatic in the lineup after leading the Bruins defensemen in scoring (37 points), and creating a huge impact on a much improved power play for the Black and Gold. While it’s true the Bruins will have to pick their spots with the 22-year-old when matching up against playoff lineups, they’ve done that all season: the offensive D-man starts his shift in the offensive zone a team-high 66.3 percent of the time. Krug was scratched three times during the month of March, but that won’t be a reflection on the playoff lineup when the games truly matter.

Dougie Hamilton has also made some excellent strides in the last month, and has brandished a nastier, more physical side since getting scratched for a couple of games at the beginning of March. If you don’t believe me then just ask Jeff Skinner after Hamilton drilled him in the middle of open ice.

Hamilton is actually third in Corsi Relative Quality of competition with a 0.833 mark, and trails only Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron when it comes to the level of talent he’s defended against this season.

Fancy stats like Relative Corsi also favor Hamilton with a 4.4 score for the season, and the 11 points and plus-10 in 15 games during the month of March are none too shabby. Essentially, the 21-year-old has passed all the tests this month playing as a shutdown defenseman partner with Chara, and should start there to begin the playoffs.

Kevan Miller has turned into a reliable mainstay while finishing second among Bruins players with a plus-14 during the month of March. He played 17:58 per game in the 17 games during the month of March, and brings the exact kind of punishing, physical style necessary in the postseason.

He’s also really pushed Adam McQuaid out of the picture, and made him a more expensive luxury the Bruins may end up dealing away in the offseason.

The real question is on the left side of the second defenseman pairing with Boychuk, a spot made vacant when Dennis Seidenberg went down at the end of December.

Matt Bartkowski has been there since Seidenberg blew out his right knee, and he’s had ups and downs while playing 20 plus minutes per game. He was benched for a game after he “wasn’t ready to play” by his own admission against Minnesota last month, and isn’t loved by the number crunchers with a -7.9 Relative Corsi. Meszaros, on the other hand, is a -0.1 in the same category this season, but primarily played as a bottom pairing defenseman during his time with the Flyers.

Bartkowski is quicker and more easily able to break the puck out of the defensive zone, but Meszaros is the bigger offensive threat with his booming shot and passing instincts. Both are prone to mistakes in the defensive zone from time-to-time, but Bartkowski has improved in blocking shots and throwing his body around against opponents.

The likely course of action will have the Bruins rolling with their established six defensemen to start the playoffs, and holding Meszaros, Corey Potter – and potentially Adam McQuaid if he can return – back in case injuries and struggles enter the picture in the postseason.

Claude Julien said following Tuesday’s practice that there isn’t anything in particular he’s looking for in the final seven games before writing out his lineup card.

“Nothing. I just want to see strong play from those guys," he said. "They don’t need to prove anything to me as much as they need to play solid games. Then when the time comes we’ll make our decisions, but right now we’re not asking them to do anything they’re not good at.

“They’ve been solid defenseman, and they’ve been good for us. I told the guys we’ll rotate through the back end, and they’re all aware of that. It’s not about responding. It’s about sucking it up because we have two extra defensemen, and we want to get guys in and out of the lineup.”

The last handful of games don’t matter as much to anybody following the Bruins. It’s about the six players ready to guard the defensive zone when the playoffs begin in mid-April, and that competition is almost over.