WILMINGTON – No one has to remind the Bruins how important depth along the blue line is.
When Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden went down with injuries in last season’s playoffs, Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski filled in and made sure that the New York Rangers went out in five games in the second round.
Krug became a lineup fixture all the way through to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals.
The three young defensemen all had different levels of prior NHL experience and hadn’t been inactive very long, with Krug and Bartkowski having just finished up their time with the Providence farm club in an ill-fated playoff run.
But sometimes teams don’t have the luxury of having spare defensemen that are game sharp to fill in when an injury hits. That’s why regardless of how long Adam McQuaid is out of the lineup with his most recent injury – a lower-body problem that struck him down in the first period of the Bruins’ win against Toronto Saturday – Bartkowski’s play is going to determine what the Bruins’ needs are between now and the trade deadline.
Bartkowski has played in one game since Oct. 19, a time period that includes eight healthy scratches. One week ago Saturday, the 25-year-old filled in for Johnny Boychuk and was minus-1 in 19:03 of ice time. The minus aside, he had a solid game and didn’t make many mistakes that would make general manager Peter Chiarelli pick up the phone and start dialing 1-800-VETERAN-D.
With McQuaid doubtful for the Bruins’ game with Tampa Bay on Monday, Bartkowski will again be able to show that he can quickly shake off rust in be effective.
“It takes a shift or two maybe to get back into it, if that,” Bartkowski said after practice Sunday. “But I like to challenge myself to just be at the level of where it was.”
In his four games of action this season, Bartkowski has one assist and a minus-3 rating. He proved himself NHL-ready, however, during training camp and in the 2013 playoffs, when he posted 1-1-2 totals in seven games. That’s why the Bruins decided it was better to keep Bartkowski around the NHL as a spare rather than try to get him more seasoning in the NHL. And it’s why the Bruins’ coaching staff will be patient with Bartkowski every time one of his game hiatus’ ends.
“No matter how you look at it, it’s always tough for a guy who hasn’t played much and to come in the lineup,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “We said that about [Chad] Johnson, too. Tuukka’s playing a lot of games, and for Chad to get on a roll is hard. And we realize that. So the same thing with Bart. We realize, you’ve seen him at his best and you see how good he can be, and maybe he doesn’t give you that right off the bat. But hopefully with some games under his belt he’ll get more comfortable and more confident.”
Injuries have decimated even the greatest regular-season teams’ defense corps and Stanley Cup championship chances. If Bartkowski’s not able to handle sporadic work, the Bruins will definitely need to find one guy or two that can. They might need at least one guy from outside the organization even if Bartkowski thrives.
Right now, though, it’s up to Bartkowski to prove he’s the man for the job and maybe he can even make it even harder on Julien and his co-workers to pull him out of the lineup.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.