RALEIGH -- Though it might not feel this way right now, Boston’s front office may one day be ecstatic their “done deal” for Jarome Iginla never actually turned out that way.
Jaromir Jagr has seven points (1 goal, 6 assists) and a plus-3 in six games since the trade, and has given the Bruins exactly what they’ve long needed in a free-thinking creator on the power play. But the reason for B’s delight that Jarome Iginla and Jay Feaster turned things into a three-ring circus has nothing to do with Iginla, or Jagr for that matter.
It instead has everything to do with blooming 24-year-old B’s defenseman Matt Bartkowski.
“Matt has earned these NHL games and his recent success in part because he was more prepared to take advantage of his opportunities,” said Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney, who takes a keen eye at the progress of players like Bartkowski in the player development system.
Others outside the Bruins organization were similarly cognizant that the talented, young defenseman was poised to make the jump to the next level.
All along during the Iginla trade talks, the Calgary Flames front office requested Bartkowski in discussions as one of the centerpieces to the deal. There was a reason for that: Calgary assistant GM John Weisbrod was previously one of the key talent evaluators in the Bruins organization, and he recommended Bartkowski be included in the deal that landed Dennis Seidenberg in Boston three years ago.
As it turned out, the substantial deal offered by the Bruins (Bartkowski, Alex Khokhlachev and a first-round pick) eventually fell apart when Iginla and Sidney Crosby decided to consummate their Pittsburgh puck bromance.
Since then, Bartkowski has played in eight straight games for the Black and Gold, and has racked up a pair of assists along with a plus-1 rating while averaging 13:29 of ice time this season.
More importantly Bartkowski has become somebody Bruins coach Claude Julien is now beginning to include in his circle of trust, always an important step for a young player trying to establish themselves in the Bruins organization. His quick skating legs and his zeal in turning the puck up the ice when given a little time and space has been noticeable as the taxing months of March and April have slowed down many of the other B’s players.
“He’s skating and he’s been pretty good. He’s playing with a lot of confidence and he’s stronger. Not because he wasn’t strong before, but because he’s got the confidence to play a stronger game,” said Claude Julien. “He’s not afraid to skate with the puck and make plays. That’s why he continues to be on our lineup right now.”
It even appeared he might have potted his first NHL goal in Saturday night’s 4-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena, but it instead turned out to be the primary assist when his point shot caromed off Milan Lucic’s skate for the game’s opening goal.
Bartkowski showed good patience in setting up the entire play as he wheeled around a Hurricanes defender trying to front his shot, and didn’t squeeze off the shot until he saw the lane open up toward the Carolina cage.
That’s the exact kind of poise and confidence that Bartkowski hadn’t previously shown in his stints with the Bruins over the last couple of seasons, and it’s exactly why the defensemen is finally sticking in the lineup. Hockey development experts often say defensemen can often become late bloomers because there’s so much responsibility and key decision-making required for the position.
Bartkowski seems to have finally started mastering those nuances to the position.
“Matt has worked hard to utilize his strengths as a player . . . skating being one of his best assets,” said Sweeney. “He has learned to close plays off defensively and escape fore-checking pressure while not skating into the next wave of the fore-check, often described as the 'funnel.'
“[Providence coaches] Bruce Cassidy and Kevin Dean have challenged and worked with Matt to be a match-up type D-man and embrace that role while allowing the offensive side of his game to continue to evolve rather than force things.”
In part it’s that solid, energetic and advanced play at the position that finally allowed Julien and the Bruins coaching staff to sit Dougie Hamilton for a couple of games to catch his breath as a healthy scratch. That’s fine with Bartkowski as long as he remains in the lineup.
“I’m just playing hockey now. I was always worried before about whether or not I was going to be sticking around for the next game,” said Bartkowski. “I wouldn’t say I’m going through the motions now, but I’m just playing hockey. It’s more of a routine for me. That’s a good thing.”
In other words, for the first time Bartkowski feels like he belongs at the NHL level and doesn’t have the kind of self-doubt that had always crept into his game when he clearly wasn’t ready for it. The biggest key for Bartkowski, obviously, was knowing he’d be a part of the Bruins organization after the Iginla deal fell through, and he remained a part of the team after the April 3 NHL trade deadline.
But the other big factor in the Bartkowski success story this season?
The young defenseman’s ability to bounce back from on-ice gaffes that would have sent him into a personal funk in seasons past has been a breakthrough.
Sweeney had watched plenty of Bartkowski’s games in Providence this season, and he knew he was watching a player that had matured physicality and mentally into someone ready for the NHL battles.
“Maturity as a pro, on and off the ice has been a big factor in his development,” said Sweeney. “He has accepted challenges while not losing confidence and or getting discouraged.”
Most games for Bartkowski with Boston would end similarly in the last couple of seasons: The defenseman would be victimized by a turnover in his own end that would quickly worsen into a goal against.
Bartkowski would then watch the rest of the game from the middle of the bench, and would be waiting for the tap on the shoulder that he was going back to the AHL.
“That was the last two years, and that was all on me,” admitted Bartkowski, who has three goals and 24 points for a plus-2 in 56 games for the Providence Bruins this season. “I made a mistake and I guess I couldn’t really respond to those in the past. I guess I’ve matured as a player and just moved onto the next shift where I can make a good play . . . rather than dwelling on that bad play.
“In the past I would be thinking about it before the game even started. I’d be thinking ‘I better not mess up, or I’m not even going to play.’ Now I feel like I can play with these guys, so I just go out and play.”
Bartkowski started this year with a minus-2 against the Leafs, which included a first-period turnover in his own end and led to a Nazem Kadri goal. His cross-ice pass attempt to Marchand was clearly a mistake that started the whole chain of events leading to the Leafs goal.
But he showed the required resiliency bouncing back from that rough first period, playing his game in 13:05 of ice time in a playoff-style atmosphere at the Air Canada Centre.
“Obviously you think about those things, but you don’t dwell on them. You take what you can from it, you use it and then you move on in the game,” said Bartkowski. “Management really helped me in discussions I had with them, and the Providence coaching staff did a really good job with me. They’d preach consistency and emphasized making a good play on the first shift -- a hit, a good transitional pass or something that was just a good, solid play.
“Down there I could really be an impact player. Once I made my presence felt in those games, my skating would take over, and I’d always go from there. Preaching that and consistency really helped me in the process.”
Similarly Bartkowski had a tough first period in Boston’s last loss to Montreal, and a blind pass sent to a spot where Tyler Seguin should have been on the breakout -- but wasn’t -- eventually turned into an Alex Galchenyuk goal. While it quickened the end of the Seguin experiment at center after just four periods of hockey, it also gave Bartkowski another chance to bounce back from a costly first-period mistake.
Those miscues haven’t prevented him from skating with confidence and impressive speed, and a little self-belief has even emboldened him to take risks in the offensive zone when the chance presents itself. That’s something the Black and Gold defensemen corps can always use a little more of.
Combine that with the ability to create shooting lanes – something he did on the play that resulted in Lucic’s goal Saturday night against the Hurricanes – and willingness to throw his 6-foot-1, 203-pound body in the defensive zone, and the Bruins have a player that can serve an expanding role for them among the defensemen corps.
All of that gives Bartkowski the assurance that he belongs at the NHL level -- something he wasn’t always certain of until he’d experienced prolonged periods of quality play this season.
“I don’t know if it’s confidence as much as it’s realizing that I can play,” said Bartkowski. “I would think ‘maybe’ I can do this, or ‘maybe’ I’m fast enough to do this, or ‘maybe’ I’m strong enough to play at this level. But now I know I can play with these guys. It’s just confidence that I can play, and that’s about it.
“In Providence I’m probably a faster skater than anybody, and here I can skate just as quickly. It was just a matter of realizing it and doing it. I can still move the puck and I can still be physical.”
There are no "maybes" about Bartkowski anymore. The 24-year-old has proven that he’s an NHL-caliber defenseman and the Bruins are damned happy that they still have him in the fold as the playoffs approach.