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WILMINGTON — Back in 2009-10, Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk started his rookie season by playing in three games in mid-October and then sitting out until early December.
There was no defenseman rotation in those days, and Boychuk had to stay sharp in other ways for when he eventually got his chance to be a regular.
“Maybe these guys are just that much better than I was,” Boychuk quipped when asked why the Bruins didn’t rotate him in more during his early days in the NHL.
So far in the early going of the 2013-14 season, Bruins coach Claude Julien has stuck to his preseason promise of making sure that all of his seven defensemen stay involved. Matt Bartkowski began the season as a healthy scratch, but since then Bartkowski, Dougie Hamilton and even veteran Adam McQuaid have logged time in the press box.
It’s an interesting approach that Julien and his staff have decided to take in order to make sure the young defensemen (Bartkowski, Hamilton and Torey Krug) don’t miss a beat in their development. Sitting for long periods of time early in their NHL career didn’t hamper Boychuk or McQuaid (who did not dress for 14 games in 2010-11). But something about this group of defensemen has caused Julien to change his strategy.
“Well, because the guys that are sitting out, they’re young. They’re prospects that we feel have a lot of potential and a guy like Bartkowski’s paid his dues down there. You certainly don’t want him sitting out too long. Hamilton’s another guy who belongs here and so on, so forth,” Julien said after practice Monday. “So I think it’s important that those seven in our mind are really good and some of the other guys that we had in the past had been told that they would probably be seventh and they’d be played sporadically when needed, so it’s a little bit of a different situation this year.”
The Bruins, now 5-2-0, haven’t been stung by any chemistry struggles despite the unforced lineup changes. Almost all defensemen in the NHL will only publicly state that “anyone can play with anyone” but we all know that’s not true. Even among the current Bruins’ defense corps, shifts featuring Boychuk paired with Dennis Seidenberg have turned into adventures over the past several seasons. But the Bruins have found the right mix every night in 2013-14 and proved that they are compatible with multiple partners.
That success starts with guys doing more than just talking about staying ready. The key for a couple of the players who’ve already been scratched is to just not think too much about it and pretend that every game day is a day they’re going to play a game.
“I think you try not to think about it too much. You just take the pressure off of if you’re going to play and stuff like that,” the 20-year-old Hamilton said. “It’s just about preparing yourself to play and when the opportunity comes and you’re told that you’re going to play, you have to be ready. So you just try to be ready at all times to play and understand the situation.”
Said McQuaid: “Well I mean you can’t really think about it too much. I think that … you obviously want to play and you want to be a part of winning and feeling like you’re adding to the team and being a part of the wins. So I don’t know, I think it’s just important to have the right mind-set that if you’re not playing that you’re staying positive and you’re working hard and that you’re ready to go because you don’t know, maybe next game you’re back in. You just try to take a positive attitude.”
When Julien sat McQuaid last Thursday against Florida, it was the first and only time a veteran was the odd man out. The coach said he wanted to see if the three young kids in the lineup together could match their transition-game magic from last spring’s playoff series against the New York Rangers. He said he liked what he saw, but also liked the way McQuaid performed when back in the lineup against Tampa Bay on Saturday. McQuaid scored a goal and was solid in his own end.
If the current seven-man rotation keeps veterans on their toes, in addition to keeping the younger guys sharp, that’ll be an added bonus. Something will have to give over the course of the year because the Bruins will want to have a set lineup for the playoffs. An injury might settle the competition for regular spots or a trade might clear the logjam. For now, the Bruins will use their platoon and the players will all expect to get the call on game day.
The situation might be a little unorthodox, but the results through seven games have been too positive to consider resorting to more conventional methods.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.