B's young defensemen on display in Chara's absence

B's young defensemen on display in Chara's absence
February 6, 2014, 7:15 am
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Dougie Hamilton will be one of the young defensemen counted on to step up in Zdeno Chara's absence.

(AP Photo)

WILMINGTON, Mass. – Johnny Boychuk walked through the Bruins dressing room on Wednesday afternoon asking teammates and media to “get me my cane” as he stalked off from a post-practice shower.

It wasn’t in reference to any general body soreness or pain after throwing his weight around against the Canucks on Tuesday night, but instead about his role as the veteran leader of the B’s defensemen corps for the next couple of games. With Dennis Seidenberg out for the season with a blown-out right knee and Zdeno Chara off to Russia for the Winter Olympics, the 30-year-old Boychuk is the old man of the group.

The numbers don’t lie: the Bruins are 7-6-3 in the past eight years without Chara in the lineup, and 320-197-62 with him since he signed with the Bruins as a free agent prior to the 2006-07 season.

That’s a big difference, of course.

Boychuk will be the biggest, strongest and most experienced ‘D’ patrolling the blue line without the 6-foot-9 captain, and that means he’s the veteran calming influence for an important part of Boston’s team.

“I just realized that. These guys that we have back here, they don’t play like rookies…that’s for sure,” said Boychuk. “I am pretty sure that they will do a great job.

“I think everyone will be [playing more minutes]. They are going to expect a lot out of me. As a defense core we have to step up and not try to replace what he [Chara] brings to the table, but just step your game up individually, and just try and keep it simple out there.”

He’ll be surrounded by five defensemen with an average age of 23 years old, and all of them in their first full NHL season with the Bruins. Dougie Hamilton played a half-season last year in the lockout-shortened campaign, and Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski gained valuable experience in the playoff run last season.

Boychuk has appeared in 364 games in the regular season and playoffs, and the other five B’s defensemen have appeared in a combined 254 regular-season and playoff games.

But all are still considered young defensemen, and both Kevan Miller and David Warsofsky are true rookies in every sense of the word with their NHL debuts taking place this season. Clearly the Bruins defensemen group are going to take a different look with reduced size and strength, and more speed, youth and skill level at kick-starting the transition game.

This makeshift group of six blueliners will get to test those skills against the St. Louis Blues and Ottawa Senators prior to the Olympic break. Bartkowski has been playing 20 plus minutes a night on the left side in Seidenberg’s place since the German defenseman went down and has showed a very effective combination of skating speed and solid size/strength in the defensive end.

He is looking forward to the challenge of playing against the other team’s top offensive players after helping stabilize the B’s defense following the loss of Seidenberg.

“I like the challenge. I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going to happen,” said Bartkowski. “So I’m excited about that challenge and I’m looking forward to it, because the way things are looking we’ll be playing against the top line, so I think it will be fun.”

Clearly Krug, Miller and Hamilton will also be supporting a greater ice time workload, and Warsofsky will be expected to once again shoulder a big burden in one of his first handful of games in the NHL.

“We’re looking forward to seeing those guys with a little more responsibility than when Zee is around. They should be looking forward to it,” said Claude Julien. “We know one player can make a big difference, but you don’t win hockey games with one player. It’s about at the end of the night when you look at the whole game, it’s about how the whole team played.

“Right now we need to go into [the two games] knowing we need to play a really good team game because we have some key players missing from the lineup. That’s been the case for a while, and so far we’ve been handling it well. So now it’s one more player off the roster, and we’ve got to step it up. You’re going to need a lot more than just Johnny [Boychuk] to step up if we’re going to successful in the next two games.”

One thing Julien isn’t looking for is more pressure leveled down on Boychuk to play a Chara-like role for the Bruins. While it’s true that Boychuk and Bartkowski will be the shutdown defensemen pair against a couple of excellent offensive teams in St. Louis and Ottawa, it’s also a chance for both of those D-men to show they can handle great responsibility. It should give the B’s front office a very clear view of exactly what they’re holding with an upcoming March 5 trade deadline where a veteran left-shot defenseman will be on the main menu.

At this point, Boychuk is going to be Chara’s shutdown partner when the Stanley Cup playoffs get going, and is much better prepared for the role than he three years ago when the Chara/Seidenberg pairing first became a playoff thing.

It won’t be all about Boychuk’s ability to play 25-plus minutes, anchor the Bruins penalty killing unit and neutralize the opponents’ best offensive players over the next couple of games. Still, it will be about how each member of the B’s blue line responds when asked to move up a spot in the lineup, and prove they can do more than they already do for an established Black and Gold crew.