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Kalman: Bruins Counting On Strength In Numbers

By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
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The Bruins youth movement on defense includes Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton (Getty Images)

The Bruins youth movement on defense includes Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton (Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) – If competition will make the Bruins a better team for the stretch run and the playoffs, then their minor maneuvers at the trade deadline improved their club.

By acquiring defenseman Andrej Meszaros from the Philadelphia Flyers for a conditional draft pick of little consequence and claiming Corey Potter on waivers from the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday, general manager Peter Chiarelli has now given coach Claude Julien eight defensemen to mix and match even without the injured Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid.

Unfortunately for Julien and his staff, you can shuffle the players in and out of the lineup game to game, you can mix and match them on pairs during the contests, but you cannot mix and match their skill sets to create a perfect top four. And that’s what might cost the Bruins now that they decided not to ante up and add someone that’ll fill at least a few more ounces of the hole that Seidenberg left when he tore his ACL/MCL in December. They’re left with a defense corps that has too much youth and favors offense over defense too much.

Other than Meszaros, few name defensemen moved in the days leading up to deadline day and on the actual date. The Flyers paid a premium to rent Andrew MacDonald and Nick Schultz went to Columbus. So Meszaros, who figures to be the one of Boston’s two deadline-day acquisitions that’ll really push for playing time, was in the top three of deadline-deal defensemen. Although he was the odd-man out for much of this season under Flyers coach Craig Berube, Meszaros still produced five goals and 17 points 17:22 of ice time over 38 games. There might be something in Meszaros that wasn’t tapped in Philadelphia, but the left shot is still older in hockey years than his 1985 birth date would suggest. Back and shoulder issues limited him over several seasons after he burst on the scene as a 20-year-old with Chiarelli’s old Ottawa Senators in 2005-06. Meszaros surpassed 30 points his first three seasons in the NHL.

On deadline day, however, even Chiarelli was quick to downplay Meszaros’ potential impact. The GM admitted Meszaros has slowed down since his heyday in Ottawa, and that Meszaros is better at moving the puck than defending players carrying it. There’s also the matter of learning the Bruins’ zone defense as compared to the man-to-man the Flyers were playing. That adjustment is very real and can take a long time depending on the brain capacity of the player.

In Potter, the Bruins now have a guy who’s 30 and was only an NHL regular for one season (on a terrible Edmonton club). If you remember Aaron Johnson, Potter figures to fill his role as a practice player and guy that’ll only get in the lineup down the stretch when Julien wants to rest players. There are players at Providence that will probably get the call as injury fill-ins before we see Potter playing meaningful minutes.

Chiarelli’s counting on his strength-in-numbers philosophy to pay off rather than mortgaging some future for a more mesmerizing deadline-day performance.

“We’ve brought in two big guys that can both move the puck and both push bodies down low and stuff,” the GM said. “So for me, the defense isn’t about one player, it’s about the group on a whole and how they interact. That’s the way our system is, that’s the way our coach coaches.”

There’s no telling what type of deal Chiarelli could’ve done had he been willing to pay the price. But in damage-control mode Wednesday, the general manager admitted he was disappointed he didn’t get one or more of the deals he was in on done leading up to the deadline. He even admitted some involved trading roster players, and some required the Bruins to take on a player with term.

Instead, Chiarelli basically stood pat. Once and for all, it’s going to be up to the trio of Dougie Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug to mature a little faster, reduce their mistakes and play better beyond their years and experience to get the Bruins at least as far as the NHL’s final four. Fairly or not, that trio of D will be intertwined as long as they all wear Bruins sweaters because of what they did to briefly contribute to the Bruins’ run to the Stanley Cup finals last June.

But as everyone remembers, the kids were only really relied upon as a trio in the five-game sweep of the New York Rangers in the second round. Not to take anything away from what they were able to do, or from Krug’s offensive eruption, but the Rangers had obviously given up on their season and their coach. They were a little challenge to Boston. Once the challenge grew and Julien had the chance to get Andrew Ference back in the lineup, he took Bartkowski out and left Krug as the only rookie among his top six.

Now even after the trades on Wednesday, there’s no safety net. Odds are that when the Bruins begin the second season, Hamilton, Bartkowski and Krug will make up half the defense corps. We’ve seen ups and downs with those three in the lineup together during the regular season that look like one of those X Games dirt bike tracks. For every dynamic play one makes in the offensive end, there have seemingly been two or more gaffes by one or all three of them in the defensive part of the game. You can laud Matt Bartkowski after a plus-4 in New York, but only if you didn’t watch the game. The on-the-job training might work in Edmonton, and it might wind up working in Boston, but it’s a risk one wouldn’t expect cautious Chiarelli to take.

I’ve said all season that these mistakes that rarely cost the Bruins games in the regular season are going to be magnified in the playoffs when the competition is better, teams have a seven-game series to make adjustments and scoring is at a premium. The progress the three kids have made has been slow. If their improvement doesn’t speed up under the pressure of the late-season schedule and the push that’ll be made by Meszaros and Potter to make Julien’s lineup decisions more difficult, the Bruins’ demise in the postseason will come quicker than most hope.

Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.

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