WILMINGTON – Matt Bartkowski played some of the best hockey of his NHL career during last spring’s playoff run for the Boston Bruins when the 25-year-old averaged 19:47 of ice time per game.
So it makes sense that the 25-year-old has picked up his game over the last week as the Bruins have begun feeding Bartkowski more ice time as the regular left defenseman in Boston’s second “D” pairing. The young only topped 20 minutes of ice time twice in the first three months of the season, but he’s been the biggest beneficiary of playing time since Dennis Seidenberg went down with the blown ACL/MCL last month.
Bartkowski has topped 20 minutes in six of nine games in the month of January, including each of the last three games, and has been a plus-4 during that stretch while skating with several D partners.
“I was playing okay for part of the season, but now I think I’m playing my game skating and contributing,” said Bartkowski. “With the more ice time comes more responsibility, so it’s going well. [The opportunity] came in the playoffs last year, and I stepped up pretty well. It’s happening now again, and I think I’ve stepped up. I just need to keep going.
“There are little things I always work on. As long as I’m skating and playing physical, I’m usually pretty effective. The biggest thing I’m working on is being consistent. I think that’s the biggest difference between an average pro, and a really good pro. Look at [Seidenberg], he is one of the most consistent guys on the team. He might make a few mistakes here and there, but he’s the same player every single night. He’ll always be physical, and he’ll always be strong.”
Claude Julien has noticed the uptick in Bartkowski’s play as of plate, and thinks the steadier diet of playing time has brought about some of that consistency that the defenseman is seeking out.
“I think the more minutes [Bartkowski] has played, the better we’ve seen him play,” said Julien. “It’s kind of a normal thing for players: the more you play, the more you’re involved and the better you play on most occasions. I think he’s played his better hockey as of late, which is a good sign for us.”
Of course there are still things Bartkowski can improve on. He is sixth on the Bruins with 78 registered hits in only 34 games, and he’s not afraid to mix things up physically at 6-foot-1 and 200-pounds. But the young blueliner has only blocked 30 shots in that time period despite several instances where the last minute sacrificing of his body in front of the net has saved goals.
The coaching staff would like to see Bartkowski play a heavier game, and come out of more one-on-one battles with the puck on his stick. That’s quite simply what the Bruins need out of their top-four defenseman once the playoffs start, and that’s what they’re looking for at this point.
“It’s about being good in the battles. I qualify battles as coming out with the puck, and not getting beat off the wall. Not getting outmuscled, or stripped of the puck,” said Julien. “It’s something we keep working with [Bartkowski] on, and making sure he’s becoming a better defender.
“He’s always a good player to carry the puck, and take it through the neutral zone. So right now it’s about encouraging him to do those things because we really need that, and help him with the things he needs to improve on.”
The Bruins clearly know Bartkowski’s bread-and-butter is his blazing skating speed, and his ability to carry the puck out of danger while putting pressure on the opposition when he carries possession deep into the offensive zone. Combine that with a solid point shot, good size and strength and the proven ability to play big minutes without a big drop-off in his play.
Those traits will make him attractive in trade talks should the Bruins search for a top-four veteran defenseman to help fill the Seidenberg void. Names like Chris Phillips and Andrew MacDonald continue to headline the wish list for the Bruins, but it remains to be seen if either player is ever made available in a trade market that’s still far from fully formed.
Young defensemen with speed, offensive skill and the willingness to play both ends of the rink will always be valued highly, and nobody could blame the Bruins if they decide they need more of a veteran D-man among their top-four blueliners.
The Bruins already feature a couple of talented, inexperienced defensemen in their lineup in Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton, and too many of those first and second year defenseman could spell trouble once the postseason arrives. Either way, Bartkowski isn’t paying attention to any potential Bruins trade talks involving the addition of a veteran defenseman, or the jettisoning of a valued younger player.
“I don’t go online and look for that [trade] stuff. There’s no reason to. It’s not going to help my game. We don’t make the trades. It’s really almost none of my business. It’s just about how I play, and whether it’s good enough,” said Bartkowski. “I don’t want to be traded. I don’t want anybody brought in, I guess.
“But if you start focusing on things you shouldn’t, then you’re neglecting the things you should be focusing on.”
Bartkowski went through the whole rigmarole last season when he was essentially traded to the Calgary Flames in the Jarome Iginla deal before it was ultimately nixed in favor of the Pittsburgh Penguins. So the 25-year-old has learned how to block all of that stuff out of his game, and simply focus on taking advantage of the opportunity given to him by the Bruins.
After all if Bartkowski plays well enough, improves his battle and really refines the use of his skating speed as the weapon it can be in generating offense, he has all the tools to enjoy a long, productive career in an NHL full of late-blooming defenseman.