Bruins not giving up on finding puck-moving defensemen

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Bruins not giving up on finding puck-moving defensemen

If this weeks development camp for the Bruins brought one thing to light, its the never-ending search for the mythic puck-moving defenseman.

The Bruins have a well-chronicled history of searching for a puck-moving partner to pair with Zdeno Charas tower of defensive power, but they havent found their permanent Mr. Right since Peter Chiarelli took over the Bs reins six seasons ago.

First there was Dennis Wideman, who had a 50-point season in Boston before subpar skating skills and ill-timed turnovers sent him on his way.

Matt Hunwick developed within the Bruins system, but ultimately didnt have the skills necessary to be that defenseman.

Steve Kampfer similarly rose up through Bostons ranks, but didnt prove to be answer while coming down with injuries at the worst possible times.

There was, of course, Tomas Kaberle as well. The Bruins won a Cup with Kaberle after he arrived from Toronto, but he essentially became a third pairing defenseman during the playoffs that quarterbacked the worst power play in history to ever actually win a Cup.

Obviously weve tried to develop a puck-mover a little bit in the last few years, or bring in a player of that ilk," said Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney. "People would comment that Kaberle wasnt a great fit, but he helped us win a Stanley Cup. I dont care what anybody says. He played with Adam McQuaid and he helped out McQuaid in terms of transitioning the puck and making sure we werent in our own end. Those were key ingredients.

Everything about Kaberles usefulness is ultimately debatable, but nobody can argue with Sweeneys point that the Bruins won it all despite the flaws of the current Montreal Canadiens blueliner.

Finally last season Joe Corvo was a one-and-out after playing like he was actively trying to relocate into Claude Juliens dog house. The Bruins attempted to protect Corvo by keeping him away from the oppositions best offensive players, but once again he couldnt offset his defensive foibles with enough offensive production.

After seeing gun-for-hire defensemen and traded assets ultimately crash and burn as Bostons puck-moving defenseman, it appears they are finally turning inward as an organization for solutions.

And theyre not doing it with just one candidate.

Nineteen year-old Dougie Hamilton holds the inside track for the sixth defenseman spot on the Bruins heading into next year, and his 95 point season (regular season and playoffs combined) at the junior hockey level show offensive proficiency. While Hamilton is a more well-rounded defensemen than puck-movingpower play specialist, Sweeney believes he might grow into an elite offensive defenseman.

You look at what Doug Hamilton may or may not be able to bring and what he was able to do at the junior level. You hope that his offensive skills translate and that hes gonna be a puck mover, said Sweeney. Is he a prototypical guy . . . sometimes you describe those guys as being small and skilled wise? No, those guys are big and skilled now. Its the best of both worlds in that regard.

Torey Krug's another potential candidate . . . you know, he came in and moved the puck in the couple of games that he played very effectively. Im sure the guys in Providence would say the same thing about David Warsofsky. Clearly were trying to make sure that we have that part of it covered because we feel like its a need. If we can do something better at the NHL level, then we need to go out and develop it.

Thats exactly what theyre doing: David Warsofsky and Torey Krug will both be in Bruins training camp as young defensemen with puck-moving skills and fast-paced skating on their resume. They are in the latest in a line of candidates to fill Bostons vacancy for a PMD (puck-moving defenseman) and Krug showed some promise in a pair of dress rehearsal games with the Bruins at the end of last season.

Then theres 18-year-old Charlestown, Mass native Matt Grzelcyk, who showed perhaps the best skating wheels of any player in the entire Bruins Development Camp this week after the Bruins secured his rights in the third round of the draft. Grizz showed the aggressive willingness to jump up into the play offensively against players older, bigger and stronger than him in first development camp, and fearlessly flashed 360 degree spin moves when looking for a little offensive separation.

The future Boston University star is likely four or five years away from playing in a Bruins uniform if things go well in Jack Parkers hockey program. But Grzelcyk is a future PMD the Bruins will keep tabs on over his collegiate career while they also try out a few new candidates for the position in the meantime.

It certainly beats the alternative.

It is expensive to acquire that puck-moving defenseman as it would be to sign a player; Dennis Widemans contract is what it is, said Sweeney. Ideally, youd like to develop that, and you would be homegrown in every position. We look for the puck-moving defenseman, of course.

Youre not going to be able to force that. Even looking at this years draft, you know, would you go up and trade for a player? That player might not be there, and might not be ready for two or three years.

So instead the first new wave of puck-moving defensemen candidates will include Krug, Warsofsky and Hamilton this coming season. Eventually one would expect the law of averages will begin working on their favor, and one of Bostons undersized, skilled choices will develop into a Bryan Rafalski-type blueliner.

But until then the search for the elusive, mythic PMD rages on for the Bruins and they'll will keep on trying until they find what they're looking for.

Morning Skate: Old friend Warsofsky called up by Penguins

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Morning Skate: Old friend Warsofsky called up by Penguins

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while waiting for the next wave of announcements that the Bruins have signed college players out of the NCAA tournament.
 
-- Former Wild goaltender Josh Harding is finding his way after his MS diagnosis forced him out of the NHL prematurely.

-- Young D-man Seth Jones is becoming the “hoss” defenseman that the Blue Jackets will need come playoff time.

-- PHT writer Cam Tucker has Wild coach Bruce Boudreau calling a loss to the Canucks “embarrassing” as the hard times continue for Minnesota.  

-- Backup goalie Curtis McElhinney is ready to step up for the Leafs after they lost Frederik Andersen to injury.
 
-- Old friend David Warsofsky has been recalled from the AHL and will be with the Penguins as crunch time hits ahead of the playoffs.

-- USA Hockey is now reportedly reaching out to rec league and former Division III women’s hockey players to find a replacement roster for the world championships as the USA women continues their boycott.
 
-- For something completely different: We have an honest-to-goodness think piece about pulling the “Irish Exit.” Well, okay then.

Haggerty: Time for Bruins to make a change in goal

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Haggerty: Time for Bruins to make a change in goal

BROOKLYN -- For the second year in a row, Boston's franchise goaltender and $7 million man Tuukka Rask couldn’t physically answer the bell for one of the biggest games of the year.

Rask was unable to go Saturday night when the Bruins faced the Islanders at the Barclays Center because of a lower body injury. Anton Khudobin stepped in and helped the B's to a 2-1 victory that snapped their four-game losing streak, moved them past the Isles back in the second wild-card spot, and enabled them to close to two points behind Toronto for third place in the Atlantic Division.

It wasn't quite the same as last year, when Rask was too sick to play the win-or-go-home regular-season finale against Ottawa. The Bruins got shellacked in that one and missed the playoffs. There are still two weeks left in the regular season, so Saturday didn't have the same do-or-die consequences.

But Khudobin, who made 18 saves, gave Boston some energy and enthusiasm in the crease with the same kind of battling, chaotic style that Tim Thomas exhibited. Watching Khudobin throw a double-pad stack at John Tavares on a late third-period Islanders power play in a one-goal game was a clear sign that Rask wasn’t in net, and his unconventional technique perhaps distracted Tavares enough that he ripped his open shot off the crossbar and away from harm.

Afterward interim coach Bruce Cassidy fervently sang Khudobin’s praises, and almost seemed to be shedding some light on what they aren’t always getting from their top goaltender in these crunch-time games.

“That’s the type of win that goes a long way in the room when your goaltender is battling hard, and fighting that hard to see pucks and your D are blocking shots," he said. "And you kill that many penalties. (The Islanders failed to score on six power plays.) It was a nice building-block win for us.

"I loved [Khudobin’s] performance. He’s a battler. He got swimming a couple of times, but that’s Dobby. He keeps it interesting for you. He’s a battler and he always has been. That’s what we needed tonight.”

So now the Bruins have a choice about what to do Tuesday against the Predators. And the hope here is that Khudobin gets a second straight start, whether or not Rask is healthy enough to go.

Khudobin has won five games in a row and has a 1.98 goals-against average and a  .920 save percentage since the All-Star break. Rask, in contrast, has an inflated 2.91 GAA and .892 save percentage in that span.

More than that, however, there’s a real issue developing with Rask and how much trust the Bruins can have in him when the games matter most. He gave up a couple of bad goals in the loss to the Lightning on Thursday night, and afterwards looked like the boy who lost his dog when answering questions with a soft, unsure voice that began to trail off when it came time to accept responsibility for his part in the ugly defeat.

The downcast expression was a concern, and it certainly seemed like Rask was rattled mentally as much as he was beaten physically after that defeat.

So the overriding question now is: What good is a No. 1 goaltender if he doesn’t play like one when it matters most?

Maybe Rask is seriously injured and we’ll find out after the season that he needs hip surgery, and was far less than 100 percent all year. Or maybe playing three games in four nights was too much of a strain, and he needed the weekend away from the ice after the unavoidable bump in workload.

The fact that the Bruins expect Rask to practice on Monday, however, really takes some of the oomph out of the serious-injury argument, and makes one wonder how he can practice Monday after not playing in the biggest game of the season on Saturday.

Maybe Rask was angered by Cassidy calling him out by saying the team “needs more from him” after the goalie's lackadaisical performance in the loss to Tampa Bay, and that played into the goalie’s sudden case of “lower body discomfort” on Friday after saying Thursday he felt fine physically.

Maybe Rask is frazzled emotionally after the burden of carrying the team at times this season, and he needed a few days away from the ice to recollect himself and get ready for the crucial seven remaining games on the schedule.

Still, the Bruins can’t look at Rask as someone they can rely on when the chips are down for the rest of this season. That cost them last year, and shame on the Bruins if they again make the mistake of putting all of their playoff eggs in the Rask basket.

Perhaps it’s time to even start thinking about other goaltending options this summer. Rask will no longer have full no-trade protection once the season is over. He's been inconsistent at best in the biggest moments over the years, and the B’s shouldn’t pay a goaltender like he’s one the best if he isn’t when the late-season heat is on.

But that’s a question to ponder in a month or two.

For now, the Bruins should ride the hot goalie -- Khudobin, who showed Saturday he's willing to battle his butt off -- and let Cool Hand Tuukka cool his heels on the bench while recuperating from whatever it is that kept him out of a gigantically important game in Brooklyn this weekend.