BOSTON (CBS)- After the Bruins held two training camp practice sessions at TD Garden Saturday, Matt Bartkowski said he hadn’t yet heard the encouraging words coach Claude Julien uttered during a press conference earlier in the week.
“Well I think the first thing I would say is that he’s come to camp in better shape than he ever has,” Julien said. “I think that’s part of a player maturing into a good pro and he’s obviously figured it out, which every player has to go through. So that’s a good start for Matt this year. And obviously, 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 took it seriously enough to come in the best shape ever and right now the confidence that he’s gained throughout the last part of last year playing with us has certainly helped him.”
For a 25-year-old entering his fourth pro season with just 20 NHL regular season games under his belt, those words “his job to lose” are just what any player would want to hear. Relayed the message by a reporter, Bartkowski was glad to hear about his coach’s confidence. But it didn’t really matter to him what was being said because that was the mentality he showed up with at camp in addition to his better fitness.
“Yeah, and I came in thinking, just preparing and everything to be on the team,” Bartkowski said. “And I just got in the mindset of anything less is a disappointment so just put my best foot forward.”
It took until he was thrust upon the grandest stage in the sport for Bartkowski to put his best foot forward. From Game 7 of the first-round series against Toronto through the entire five-game second-round series against the New York Rangers, Bartkowski was a regular, logging major minutes and contributing a goal and an assist. Andrew Ference’s return to the lineup sent Bartkowski back to the press box for the rest of the run to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals.
So while all the talk this summer leading up to camp was about how Bartkowski, Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton were able to shine in the playoffs, Bartkowski felt like there was unfinished business. He would’ve appreciated more of a chance to show he belonged. That’s why it was important for the Pittsburgh native, who’s competing with Krug, Hamilton and a couple others for two spots in Boston’s blue-line corps, to pick up where he left off.
“Well, I mean, it ultimately ended in disappointment,” he said. “We lost and then I didn’t play the last two series. So it’s not like it was a total success. I played well when I was in there, but I would’ve liked to play more. If anything there’s just that drive that just adds to it.”
Hamilton has the first-round pick pedigree and 42 games of NHL experience he acquired as a rookie. Krug, with his offensive exploits (six points, four goals in 15 playoff games) and diminutive size, has the cult following. Bartkowski might be battling more than just two players for playing time. He ran more sprints this summer to make sure he was in better shape than last year’s camp. And he’s gotten a jump on being more physical, as Bruins farmhand Craig Cunningham found out during practice Saturday. Bartkowski green lighted Cunningham on a breakout attempt during a brief scrimmage.
Bartkowski could lose this battle. There are a lot of outside factors (salary, what side he plays, etc.) that could keep him from being in the lineup opening night. He could wind up in Providence, where he could get more experience with the farm team. Or he could go the same route as Adam McQuaid and Johnny Boychuk and cool his heels as a healthy scratch until there’s an opening.
Regardless of what happens when camp closes in two weeks, Bartkowski’s certain he’s not going to lose a job, two other guys are going to have to beat him for it.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.