WILMINGTON (CBS) — Finding positives in Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton’s injury is like finding something the Bruins and Montreal Canadiens like about each other.
That doesn’t mean that Hamilton’s indefinite absence from the lineup, which was announced by coach Claude Julien while his team was in the midst of two days of practice this week to prepare for the final nine games of the regular season, can’t be a benefit to some individuals.
Lead among the players that might earn a reward from Hamilton’s injury is Adam McQuaid. The 28-year-old defenseman is already playing a career-high 18:23 a night this season. He practiced this week at Ristuccia Arena in Hamilton’s regular spot, paired with Zdeno Chara. When Hamilton missed the third period of the Bruins’ loss to the Florida Panthers on Saturday, McQuaid’s minutes were boosted to 21:15, his most ice time since early January.
McQuaid’s looking forward to playing a larger role, but he’s hoping to share responsibility with the other healthy defensemen.
“Well I think it’s the same. I think it’s going to be a bigger role for everybody and we’ll see within games, things change and you have to be able to adapt,” he said after practice Wednesday at Ristuccia Arena. “You can’t really approach things thinking that. You’ve just got to play your game and again everyone brings different elements, so you try to bring the best at what you can do.”
McQuaid’s right, to an extent. Defenseman Torey Krug will probably see his ice time increased and he’ll probably get more top-four assignments. Matt Bartkowski, the Bruins’ Forrest Gump defenseman (because you never know what you’re going to get), might also have to handle some more difficult matchups. But based on his experience, his 6-foot-5, 209-pound size and his physicality, McQuaid is going to be more important in the Bruins’ attempt to avoid historically blowing a berth in the playoffs.
The Bruins, who led the Ottawa Senators by seven points on March 10, are one point back for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference heading into a game with the Anaheim Ducks at TD Garden on Thursday.
In addition to helping the Bruins secure a playoff spot, McQuaid might be able to boost his stock for free agency this summer. McQuaid’s three-year contract with a cap hit a little north of $1.5 million per season expires after this season. Cast mostly as a third-pair defenseman during his NHL career, McQuaid has had varying levels of success during sporadic opportunities as a top-four defenseman. When McQuaid’s playing his best, Julien likes to mix in the veteran as a top-four blueliner during defensive-zone draws and shutdown opportunities against bulkier forward lines.
Now Julien will have little choice but to lean on McQuaid for many important shifts. And that could add to McQuaid’s resume when it comes time to get paid this summer. With good buddy and former teammate Johnny Boychuk getting $6 million a season on a contract extension with the New York Islanders and Chris Tanev signing up for five more years at around $4 million per season, defensemen continue to be a coveted, well-paid commodity in free agency.
McQuaid’s not in Boychuk or Tanev’s class. Still, if McQuaid can finish strong, he can at least guarantee himself a raise to an amount a tier below those recent signees and he can probably double his annual cap hit.
Of course, broaching such matters with so much on the line for the Bruins isn’t the wholesome McQuaid’s choice.
“I mean that would be looking at things from a personal standpoint and I don’t want to do that,” McQuaid said. “It’s a good opportunity to hopefully help this team. Honestly, hopefully the guys can rely on you. And again it is an opportunity to try and play more regularly and against top players and it’s a good challenge.”
Even when it’s pointed out to McQuaid that defensemen are cashing in left and right, he refused to fantasize about his bank account swelling up.
“Yeah, I mean, again it’s one of those things that you bring it up to me now, it’s something I don’t want to think about until the season’s over,” he said. “So I’m focused on being strong. It’s going to be a challenge so I need to put all my focus into that and not all the other things that eventually I’ll have to think about. You take care of things now and things will take care of themselves down the road.”
Although advanced stats reflect poorly on McQuaid, he’s had a decent season. He’s bounced back from his annual lengthy injury absence (18 games with a broken thumb this season) to be a reliable back-end player for Boston during some tumultuous times. No one in a Bruins sweater can claim to be playing his best right now, but McQuaid has been positioning himself better in the defensive zone and winning more battles. He’s also making simpler plays out of his own end while using his bulk to protect the puck.
The importance of Boston’s games down the stretch has focused McQuaid and kept him from getting sloppy.
“Again, I’m trying to be focused,” he said. “And I think you don’t realize until you get into the stretch part of the season and the playoffs how much being focused and just making the small plays and awareness and stuff, how much of a difference that makes in games because everyone’s coming hard … the intensity is there, so it’s the minor details of the game that make the difference.”
McQuaid’s focused on the little things could help him make a big difference for the Bruins in their attempt to secure a spot in the playoffs. And regardless of where the team finishes, McQuaid should be looking at a richer future.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.