September 17, 2013

Great Debate: Who will be odd man out on 'D' for Bruins?

Every week, a rotating group of NEHJ staff members will share their take on one hot topic in the hockey world. Here’s the latest edition of The Great Debate.

The setup: Matt Bartkowski, Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug are battling for two spots on Boston's blue line.

The question: Which of the Bruins' young defensemen will be the odd man out?


This is a difficult question to answer because I'm wagering that all three are going to play a role for the Bruins at one point or another during the season.

If you're projecting an opening night roster, then as things stand before a single preseason game is even in the books, you're probably looking at Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton stepping into the top-six and Matt Bartkowski staying on the roster as the seventh defender, at least to begin the year.

Krug made a dramatic debut in the second round of the playoffs last year against the Rangers, and he's earned the respect of the coaches for his offensive abilities and character. He's a model Bruin in terms of how he puts the team first and dedicates every ounce of his talent and efforts to do what the organization asks of him. If the coaches were higher on Hamilton or Bartkowski, they could have put them in the lineup at any point during last June's Stanley Cup Final, but they did not, going with Krug down the stretch even when he made a few mistakes that could have seen a change.

Hamilton is the future of Boston's blue line corps, and he showed more than enough ability during the lockout-shortened season a year ago, even if he faded down the stretch in terms of his ice time and the role Claude Julien was willing to give him in January and February. He's probably not ready to step up and become a top-two performer in terms of his NHL production and minutes, but the B's will see what he brings and how he's progressed from a year ago. They have the option of sending him to Providence, but barring a horrendous camp (and we've seen no signs of that), I don't see why they would do that. This game is not played by robots, so the message the team might send Hamilton by demoting him to the AHL might not be worth the added responsibility he would have down  there. He wants to play in the NHL, and he's done little to deserve being sent down.

Which brings us to Bartkowski, who has earned early praise from the Bruins for being in the best shape of his young career. He may be the best all-around defender of the three, using his superior mobility and strength as an effective shutdown player, but also underrated in moving the puck and contributing a little offense in key moments. Bartkowski isn't fancy, but he's tough. He may find himself as the seventh defender to start the year, but any injury moves him squarely into the rotation and Julien may want to move him into the lineup in a platoon fashion early on just to see how he plays. The Bruins won't want to lose him on waivers, so they'll keep him up, even if they do so like a Johnny Boychuk during the 2009-10 campaign. The team has learned some valuable lessons about holding onto assets and taking the long view while working within the CBA.

In summary, the trio not only gives GM Peter Chiarelli nice depth at the position but gives him options in terms of making a trade to free up a spot while strengthening the team elsewhere. Each player brings a little something different to the table, and we're not dealing with a zero-sum game here, as there is room on the team for all three to make a difference at some point. We still have a little under three weeks before the start of the regular season, so we'll have to see how the roster shapes up, but as it stands now-- there is little doubt in my mind that all three will make an impact on the B's roster in 2013-14, even if it might not happen from start to finish.



It seems to me like the odd man out from the Bruins defense to start the season will be Matt Bartkowski.

 Torey Krug burst onto the scene in the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2013 after a strong regular season with Providence, so I do not see any way he gets sent back to the American Hockey League. The Michigan State product picked up right where he left off in the preseason opener Monday night as well, leading the B's in ice time and dishing out a trio of assists. His departure from Boston following camp would be a definite surprise to me. 

 Claude Julien has expounded quite a bit on the impact of young Dougie Hamilton's relationship with Bruins captain Zdeno Chara and his great development even at such a young age, so I feel that he'll begin the year in the lineup at the National Hockey League level after playing a considerable amount of time with Boston last season.

It's nothing against what Bartkowski's shown, but sometimes that's just the way a cookie crumbles.



When our September edition -- which included my preview of the B's training camp -- went to print, I was convinced that Krug, the puck wizard, and Hamilton, the future on Boston's blue line, would begin 2013-14 in the starting lineup, and that Bartkowski would kick off the campaign in the press box.

Now? I'm not so sure.

The big reason is Claude Julien's decision to tell the media that Bartkowski has a job to lose. Julien's not one for throwing around such statements for the hell of it. It's clearly not only a boost of confidence for Bartkowski, but also a motivator for the other youngsters he's competing with.

If the gig is really Bartkowski's to lose, he did nothing to compel Julien to bump him down the depth chart in the Bruins' preseason opener, notching two assists in a 6-3 victory over the Habs. Krug, meanwhile, was electric on the power play and finished with three assists.

I think now would be a foolish time to even begin to worry about Hamilton's future, but hockey is always a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. Krug and Bartkowski proved their worth in the postseason and are off to impressive starts during the exhibition season. The last memory we have of Hamilton was him looking a bit shaky when in the lineup during the playoffs, which he finished as a healthy scratch.

Given the play of his competitors -- from this past spring to Monday's game in Montreal -- Hamilton can't afford to underperform in the preseason, even if it's generally considered a time for players to work out the kinks. Otherwise, he'll be the one sitting up on the ninth floor at the Garden on Oct. 3 for opening night or, perhaps, headed down to Providence to hone his skills.



This is a pretty tricky question, because I assume contracts would almost certainly play a factor here. Krug and Hamilton are both on two-way deals, which might make them a better option for a send-down if all else is equal. That said, I don't think Hamilton's benching in the playoffs last year was just a fluke.

I think the organization recognizes he still has some things to refine (which was obvious to anyone who watched the latter third of the regular season), while Krug and Bartkowski both showed themselves to be NHL-ready in their brief opportunities. Unless Hamilton makes an enormous leap during the preseason, my money is on him starting the year in Providence - not the worst fate for a young talent who needs to develop some consistency.

Now we turn the question over to you: