Haggerty: Little Bears grow into big competition

Haggerty: Little Bears grow into big competition
September 14, 2013, 10:00 am
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One of the main themes of training camp with the Boston Bruins is the inevitable change that comes along with even the best of hockey clubs.

That roster turnover has reared its head at every position on the club, and perhaps none more prominently than at the defensemen corps. Clearly there are established players returning in Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk, Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid, a quartet of blueliners that have proven they can be part of a Stanley Cup-winning formula for the Black and Gold.

But beyond that it’s about bringing in the new generation of Black and Gold defensemen, and pitting the Three Little Baby Bears against each other in a friendly competition for two open spots among the top six spots. It’s likely that one of the three youngsters will eventually settle in as the seventh “extra” defensemen given the real lack of veteran defenseman at the AHL level.

But for now all three know that there’s a competition for roster spots afoot, and each of Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton are putting their best foot forward in training camp.

“I’m applying myself as one of a group of guys that have to win a spot,” said Krug, who memorably potted four goals in the second round of the playoffs against the New York Rangers. “I have to go out there, put my head down, go to work and make myself noticeable. I have a job that I’m trying to win.

“If I wasn’t thinking that way [about training camp], then shame on me.”

All three come to the table with different strengths, expectations and the ability to play different roles while trying to win different spots. During the first two days of training camp Krug is skating with McQuaid, the same defensive partnership that flourished the last three rounds of last year’s playoff run.

Hamilton is playing on the right side with Dennis Seidenberg in another pairing that could easily be envisioned to start the season. Bartkowski is skating with youngster Kevan Miller during training camp, and would seem to be the odds on favorite to start the season as the extra defenseman for the B’s.

“[Bartkowski] is in a situation now where, as you know, we’ve got at least three young guys that are going to be battling for a regular spot in the lineup. I certainly wouldn’t say he’s going to be in and out,” said Claude Julien. “Camp is just started today, again it could be injuries it could be all kinds of things. The way things went for him last year with us, finishing up the season with us, he’s coming in with a lot of confidence. I think right now it’s basically his job to lose, as far as being here with our hockey club.

“He may play so well that we’re not going to want to take him out of the lineup. I think there are a lot of things that will get resolved here as camp moves on and a lot of it will depend on their play. Their play will help us make that decision.”

The Bruins coach also singled Bartkowski out for coming in training camp in the best shape during his time with the organization, and that’s after averaging 19:47 of ice time per game during last year’s playoffs. He was finally able to show off his elite skating ability, his increased level of confidence and the willingness to battle in front of the net with his 6-foot-1, 196 pound frame.

“I was able to play a lot of minutes, play my role and play my game in the playoffs. I just want to start where I left off at the end of last year, and build from there getting better,” said Bartkowski. “I’m much more confident after playing a significant role in the playoffs. I was able to bring my game up from the AHL up to the National Hockey League.

“There’s a legit spot [to win] this year where in the past the top six was pretty much already set going into camp. Something extraordinary would have had to happen to play. I need to come in with the mindset that I will be in the lineup opening night, and anything less than that will be a disappointment.”

Despite likely having a role sewn up as the left defenseman on the bottom defenseman pairing with McQuaid, Krug arrived for training camp keen to win a spot among the top six. Clearly the 23-year-old is viewed as a replacement for the departed Andrew Ference given their similar skill sets, stature and willingness to battle, and Krug’s ability to help elevate the Boston power play should be a big part of their plans for this season.

All that being said, the Bruins coaching staff doesn’t want to see Krug rest on his notoriety from last year’s body of playoff work.

“I think [Krug’s] approach is I got to make this team and I have to earn my spot. I would say that is the right attitude because you don’t want to be a splash in the pan. I don’t think he is, but I’m just saying it’s up to him to continue to prove that he belongs,” said Julien. “We’ve see that often, where guys have a good start and things go well and all of a sudden they think they’ve got it made and get comfortable.

“Then first thing they know they get pushed out. So it’s about being careful. It’s not like you’ve poured yourself a reputation in this league where you're a bona fide NHLer. If it’s not here, it’ll be somewhere else. I think it is important that he continues to show that he can play at this level, and a couple rounds of playoffs don’t accomplish that.”

Hamilton is probably the most intriguing of the three young B’s defensemen given that he’ll someday be the best of the bunch. He’s still growing into his 6-foot-5 frame and made plenty of gains in his first offseason as an NHL player, but the 20-year-old was also on the bench at the end of last year’s playoffs behind both Bartkowski and Krug.

Hamilton did plenty of good things while posting 5 goals and 16 points in 42 games last year as an NHL rookie, and he has done nothing to dissuade B’s management that he is a franchise defenseman in the making.

But Hamilton’s offensive instincts and ability to move the puck were trumped last season by his inability to defend in the combat areas of the defensive zone. He was routinely overpowered in one-on-one battles and when things got nasty around the net. The biggest thing that will solve some of those issues for the talented youngster is growth, experience and the physical development that comes with maturity.

There’s an argument to be made that Hamilton might be better served starting the season in the AHL where he can play big minutes, and serve as the mainstay for Providence’s power play and penalty kill units. Working with P-Bruins coach Butch Cassidy has worked wonders with players like Boychuk, Krug and Bartkowski in the past, and Hamilton might benefit from that kind of close tutelage.

Just as easy Hamilton can show that he’s ready for that kind of usage at training camp while skating alongside Seidenberg, and be one of those ultra-talented players that never needed any development time at the AHL level.

Time will tell with all of these players, but one thing is clear: the competition is on when it comes to the Three Little Baby Bears on the ice.