BOSTON (CBS) — I know the Bruins haven’t been improved by the Johnny Boychuk trade because I have eyes and because general manager Peter Chiarelli told us so.
Nonetheless, the Bruins fancy themselves Stanley Cup contenders and even their step back in terms of veteran talent on the blue line after jettisoning Boychuk doesn’t pull them down far enough that they can’t be in the conversation about the top seven or eight teams in the NHL.
In fact, by virtue of geography they’re one of only three or four favorites to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, because of the Eastern Conference’s overall weakness when compared to the Western Conference.
With the regular season about 48 hours from beginning on Causeway Street, here are five questions the new-look Bruins’ defense corps has to answer to make everyone forget Boychuk:
1. How do you replace Boychuk off the ice?
Before we dig into the on-ice ramifications of Boychuk’s departure, let’s take a quick look at what he meant off the ice. By all accounts, he was a nice guy and a popular guy with teammates and outsiders. But let’s debunk the notion put forth elsewhere that he was some kind of William Wallace-type leader. The guy is hockey’s answer to Spicoli. He may have shared a motivational word or two with his teammates over the years, but he’s easily replaceable in that realm. There are so many veterans in the Bruins’ room, they all lead in one way or another, and if they lack for a class clown now, they’ll get by.
2. What do the Bruins see in Matt Bartkowski?
Over the weekend I already brought up coach Claude Julien’s quote about this guy from a little more than a week ago. But it’s worth reiterating that after Julien complimented Bartkowski’s puck-moving, he then went on to say:
“Defensively, as you’ve heard before, he struggles a little bit in his own end. He gets beat off the walls.”
The Bruins aren’t asking Bartkowski to win the Norris Trophy. All they want is for him to be serviceable by making up for his strength deficiency with some positional play and savvy. However, if he hasn’t learned his lesson about this in the past three years, I’m not sure why they think it’s going to click now. His training camp performances were so-so at best.
The odds are he’ll just be the seventh defensemen. But that role typically turns into someone that has to get into the lineup for a key stretch of the season after injuries.
3. Is Kevan Miller ready for a bigger workload?
The attention Bartkowski’s gaffes got last spring in the playoffs overshadowed Miller’s struggles against the Montreal Canadiens. Over the course of the regular season, he proved to be a solid third-pair defenseman and penalty-killer with the ability to sometimes take an occasional shift in a bigger spot against tougher competition with Zdeno Chara. The playoffs exposed him a bit. Now he might have to get top-four minutes. We’re going to find out quickly if he’s ready for prime time and if he can play his style and stay healthy. Which brings me to …
4. Can the Bruins’ stalwarts stay healthy?
Dennis Seidenberg is coming off ACL/MCL surgery. Adam McQuaid had ankle surgery. The foundation of Miller’s game is his ability to play the body. Odds are strong there are going to be injuries. No knock on the likes of David Warsofsky and Zach Trotman, but the drop-off between the battle-tested veterans and the prospects, in terms of experience and ability, is stark for a team with high expectations. Seidenberg, at 33, probably could’ve benefited from being eased into the regular season. He’s typically a slow starter anyway. Now he’ll have to learn a new partner and be the no-doubt catalyst of the second pair. McQuaid might also see his ice time increased earlier in the year than he wanted.
5. Is Dougie Hamilton ready for his quantum leap?
Everyone’s on the Dougie Hamilton bandwagon and it’s a pretty place to be. There’s no doubt the ceiling for this kid is higher than the eye can see. Nonetheless, he’s still just 21. Now the Bruins are doing more than predicting big things from Hamilton in 2014-15; they’re counting on them. Should Hamilton have any third-year growing pains, it could put the post-Boychuk defense corps in flux. The Bruins typically have better alternate plans than what we’re seeing now. I’m not saying Hamilton’s not up to the task, just pointing out that it’d be nice to give the kid a safety net below him before asking him to fly.
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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