Bruins watch positional battles as camp wraps

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Bruins watch positional battles as camp wraps

By Joe Haggerty
CSNNE.com Bruins Insider Follow @hackswithhaggs
With 27 players remaining in Bruins camp, many items have been cleared up when it comes to this years prospective hockey club.

Line combinations, positional battles and job openings are out there for everybody to see, and everyone from baby-faced 20-year-old Jordan Caron to 35-year-old Chris Clark are approaching the last week of camp like its an employment opportunity. With 17 players returning from last years Stanley Cup champion club, the roster battles are few but no less fierce.

Several NHL jobs are on the line given that the Bruins will be able to carry extra forwards and defensemen thanks to their spacious cap situation, and Claude Julien has felt that competitive upswing in camp.

I think it gets pretty obvious at the end who you're battling against for the most part. At the same time it's good competition, said Julien. I dont mind that at all. That doesn't mean that those guys are only fighting for open spots.

They can be taking somebody else's spot if we feel that they're a step ahead of them. We got a chance to see some of those guys in the next couple of games, and hopefully they'll make our decisions as hard as possible.

While its nice in theory that the incumbent Bs are battling for jobs and its always possible if the Bruins decide to trade some of their veterans, its also unlikely any of the nucleus would be jettisoned this early in the process.

So its about a pair of coveted reserve battles that are being waged within the Bruins.

Clark has certainly been to the NHL roster witching hour before as training camp cuts become the cruelest. He understands that its now all about business on the ice, and securing a job.

I was a young guy once that was taking a job away from an older guy, so you know that there is always that competition there whenever youre in camp. You know that young guys are looking to come in and earn that spot, said Clark, who scored the game-winner Monday night against the Habs. The important thing for me has always been to avoid doing things outside of your normal game, and to make sure you dont leave anything on the ice when you do get the chance to show your stuff.

The battle for the 13th forward spot is seemingly an even playing field between Caron and Clark with the Bs head coach admitting the Bruins want to take their time evaluating Benoit Pouliot after an average training camp. So it looks like Pouliot is safe when it comes to final cut day.

Caron has been in the mix up and down the Bs lineup over the last two weeks. The former first round pick has excelled in checking line roles and top line chances, and that versatility in varied spots may end up being the saving grace that gets him on the roster.

There is, however, also the simple fact Caron has options and can be sent to Providence to start the season without any waivers being involved.

The Bruins could then call up the 20-year-old as they see fit once injuries or a trade comes down the pipeline.

Clark has also been quite effective in training camp for the Bs, has played back-to-back games while retaining his gritty effectiveness and has meshed well on ice with his teammates with impressive production. There were health concerns about Clark coming into camp after a lot of hard miles logged in the NHL, but it looks like hes addressed all of those thus far. All that being said, it sounded Wednesday morning like Caron had the inside track on a roster spot with the Bruins with two games to go.

So far Caron has shown he's capable of skating -- even on the top line -- with some skill and speed," Julien said. "I think he's done a great job. I like the way he's gotten to the corners, and used his strength and his body to come out of there with the puck. He's done a great job in front of the net, he's had a lot of great opportunities as well shot-wise and stuff like that.

He's doing a lot of things that has really put him in a real good position. I think right now he's got his foot in the door more than he's got the other one out.

Advantage: Caron.

The defensemen spot is a little more difficult to handicap. Steve Kampfer and Matt Bartkowski are the last men standing for the extra blueliner post, and both were the last men standing for the seventh spot last year as well.

Kampfer started out a bit slowly this season, but had a pair of strong games against the Montreal Canadiens over the weekend while Bartkowski has been a steady Eddie throughout training camp.

Julien was asked a question about Bartkowski potentially being in Providence to start the year, and practically bristled at the query after such a strong camp despite six established defensemen ahead of both blueline youngsters.

I think Bartkowski is as good a candidate as anybody else at staying here, said Julien. Right now, there are a couple of guys that are there that are pretty even and each bring a certain element we like. So now it's a matter of them battling for that spot. It's pretty obvious that both those guys were on our radar last year. Either they were call-ups or they were there for part of the season. It's that same battle that happened last year.

Bartkowski is bigger, stronger and looked incredibly poised when the Bruins slotted him into a point position on the power play earlier in camp while Kampfer has flashed the skill set that allowed to play 38 NHL games last year: good skating speed, quick decision-making with the puck and a feisty approach despite his small-ish size for an NHL blueliner.

The first couple of games I dont personally think I could have played as well as I could have," Kampfer said. "But Ive played better and better, and the confidence has been coming back now. Its always competitive. We have a lot of depth and a lot of guys playing well. If you keep playing the right way then you force the Bs front office to do something.

So you just want to keep playing that way," he added. "Its a new year and a new team. I know Ive got to earn my spot and get better every day. It definitely feels like guys are getting ready for the season and want to make an impact on the team. You definitely want to make sure youre in the lineup, and if not then that youre ready to go when things happen."

It may in the end come down to which type of defenseman the Bruins feel they need more as their extra skater.

While Bartkowski was the final player cut from Bs training camp last season, it was Kampfer that ended up making the larger contribution to the team once things got going in the season.

So its easy to see that scenario playing out once again this season.

Advantage: Bartkowski. But its a race thats too close to call right now with many precincts still yet report and two exhibition games left.

Joe Haggerty can be reached at jhaggerty@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Joe on Twitter at http:twitter.comHackswithHaggs

Some questions and answers when it comes to Miller contract

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Some questions and answers when it comes to Miller contract

A day after the Bruins announced a much-maligned four-year contract extension for defenseman Kevan Miller, B’s general manager Don Sweeney held court with the media to equal parts explain/defend the $10 million deal. Sweeney pointed to the very high character of a hardnosed player in Miller, and the relatively low mileage given that he’s played only 159 games at the NHL level.

There was also mention made of the room to grow in Miller’s game, though it’s difficult to imagine a much higher ceiling for a 28-year-old player than what the former UVM produced showed in 71 games last season.

“Kevan brings incredible character. His signing provides us with the necessary depth on our defense that all teams need. His relative low-mileage, having just played 160 games, we identified that we think Kevan has room for continued growth and development,” said Sweeney. “We certainly saw that in his play this year when he had an expanded role. Relative to the free market place, very, very comfortable with where Kevan fits into our group, and this provides us with the opportunity to explore the marketplace in every way, shape, or form, in having Kevan signed.”

Here’s the reality: Miller is a 5-6, bottom pairing defenseman on a good team, and a top-4 defenseman on a team like last year’s Bruins that finished a weak 19th in the league in goals allowed. The five goals and 18 points last season were solid career-high numbers for a player in the middle of his hockey prime, but he barely averaged 19 minutes of ice time per game as a front top-4 defenseman. Miller struggles with some of the fundamental needs in today’s NHL if you’re going to be a top-4 D-man: the tape-to-tape passes aren’t always accurate, there’s intermittent difficulty cleanly breaking the puck out of the defensive zone and Miller was exploited by the other team’s best players when paired with Zdeno Chara at points last season.

Certainly Miller has done some good things racking up a plus-55 rating during his three years in Boston, but executives and officials around the league were a bit surprised by the 4-year, $10 million contract extension. It’s viewed as a slight overpay in terms of both salary and term, but it’s more the redundancy of the contract that’s befuddling to some.

“Miller is certainly a rugged guy, but you already had one of those at roughly the same value in Adam McQuaid. I believe that you can’t win if you have both McQuaid and Miller in your top 6 because they are both No. 6 D’s in my mind,” said a rival NHL front office executive polled about the Miller contract. “You look at the playoffs and the direction that the league is headed in, and you need to have big, mobile defenseman that can quickly move the puck up the ice. You have too much of the same thing with Miller and McQuaid, and I think you can’t win with that in this day and age.”

The one facet of the four year Miller contract that might make it okay for some Bruins fans: the tacit connection to the Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes. According to several sources around the league, the Bruins taking care of Miller now will very likely have a positive impact on their chances of landing Vesey when he becomes a free agent on Aug. 15, and makes them the front-runner for the Harvard standout’s services. Both Miller and Vesey are represented by the same agent in Peter Fish, and those are the kinds of behind-the-scenes connections that many times factor into free agent signings and trades around the NHL.

So many, this humble hockey writer included, may owe Sweeney a slight apology if paying a $10 million premium for a bottom-pairing defenseman in Miller now pays dividends in landing a stud forward like Vesey that’s drawing interest all around the league.

Sweeney: Bruins head to market seeking 'transitional defenseman'

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Sweeney: Bruins head to market seeking 'transitional defenseman'

BOSTON -- This isn't exactly a state secret: The Bruins are on the lookout for a puck-moving, top-pairing defenseman who can help their transition game, and aid them in more easily breaking the puck out of their own zone.

The B's basically had two top-4 defensemen on their roster last season -- Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara were the only two on the Boston roster who topped 20 minutes of ice time per game -- and tried to fill in the blanks with Kevan Miller, Adam McQuaid, Dennis Seidenberg and several other young blueliners. Their success, or lack thereof, is reflected in the fact they finished 19th in the league in goals allowed.

So general manager Don Sweeney said during a Wednesday conference call with reporters that the team is in search of a “transitional” defenseman, and will do whatever is necessary to acquire one.

In Sweeney's words, the Bruins will be “aggressive” and pursue improving the hockey club “in any way, shape or form".

There are plenty of signs that Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk could figure prominently in Boston’s trade pursuits this summer, and free agents Keith Yandle and Alex Goligoski would be immediate upgrades in the “transitional defenseman” department. But the Bruins were also on a mission to get a “transitional defenseman” last season as well, and came up empty (aside from early season flameout Matt Irwin and 35-year-old journeyman John-Michael Liles acquired at the trade deadline).

They had grand plans to trade up in the first round of last year's draft and nab Boston College's Noah Hanifin. But -- after dealing Dougie Hamilton to the Calgary Flames for three 2016 draft picks -- they were unable to move into position to draft Hanifan.

So it’s clear that making efforts to land that elusive defenseman, and actually closing the deal, are two extremely different things.

Toward that end, Sweeney also talked about looking for defensive help from within the organization. 

“We’ve had talks with (Krug, a restricted free agent) and we’ll find, whatever term that ends up being . . . we’ll find a contract for him," said Sweeney. "But we’re looking for balance. We’re also looking for players like Colin Miller to take the next step. We’ve got younger players that will hopefully push, and that’s what you want.

“You want the depth of the organization to be there for the younger players to push somebody out because they’re ready to play . . . (young players such as) [Matt] Grzelcyk and [Rob] O’Gara. And [I] just came back from seeing [Jeremy] Lauzon play. You know [we're] very excited about the trajectory of that player and the possibility (of his making the NHL roster) down the road, depending on what his development curve looks like and when he gets in here and [starts] playing against the men.

“We’ve got pieces in place that will hopefully push the group that we currently have and that’s what you want. You want that internal competition that players feel like they better perform."

But, he added, "we’re also looking outside the marketplace because we need to continue to transition the puck better.”