The Bruins' defense in 2010-11 was made to look a heck of a lot better than it really was by the otherworldly goaltending of Tim Thomas. The bad news is that the Bruins probably can't expect Thomas to be that good again (that's usually what happens when you set an NHL record). The good news is that the defense should improve. There's too much talent here for this unit to surrender over 32 shots per game again. Let's take a look at the unit, one by one:
Zdeno Chara - Any discussion of the Bruin defense must begin with the 6'9 behemoth with a Norris Trophy to his credit. Chara consistently takes on (and bests) the opposition's best scorers, takes the majority of his draws in the defensive zone, soaks up ice time like a sponge, and consistently makes his defensive partner look a whole lot better than he often is. At 34, Chara's career is entering the autumn years, but he is the type of player whose game should age pretty well; size and positioning don't diminish with age like some other skills. Chara also plays on the first unit of the power play, and with the hardest shot in the NHL, he brings a real weapon to the unit. He is, by any reasonable measure, one of the top defensemen in the NHL, and should be for at least a few more years.
Dennis Seidenberg - Boston's putative #2 defenseman, the career journeyman was a playoff hero, teaming with Chara, soaking up every bit as much ice time as the big man, and boasting a mighty +12 in the playoffs. However, Seidenberg was nothing special in the regular season, with a pedestrian +3, and consistently proving unable to carry his own pairing on ice. So, either he came into his own in the playoffs, or he's just another example of a guy who was made better by Chara. At 30 years old, the latter is more likely than the former, and Claude Julien might be well advised to leave Seidenberg paired with Chara, rather than ask him to carry the second pairing. Seidenberg, like most of Boston's defensemen, is above average in terms of offensive skill, but not truly dynamic. He has no gaping holes in his game, but nothing that stands out as a true plus skill, save for his endurance.
Adam McQuaid - McQuaid was an absolute revelation last season, going from an I-95 Piker to a fixture in Boston's defense. Measured by even-strength on ice plus-minus over 60 minutes, McQuaid was Boston's best defenseman last year. McQuaid showed significantly better than advertised offensive skill, as well, though that was more the cherry than the sundae. Like many of the Bruin defensemen, McQuaid is still fairly young (25 later this month), and thus has room to improve. He'll have to; his -2.9 Corsi needs some work, but his positioning should improve a bit, he's got a fairly good head for the game and doesn't take a lot of unnecessary chances. If the Bruins pair Chara and Seidenberg on the top pair, as they should, McQuaid should prove quite capable of anchoring the second pair.
Johnny Boychuk - Boychuk is, in many ways, an infuriating player. You want to love him because he throws his body around with reckless abandon, generating highlight-reel hits. You want to love him because he boasts a slapshot surpassed only by Zdeno Chara. And then, he'll make a boneheaded play that creates a great scoring chance for the bad guys. Indeed, Boychuk very nearly cost the Bruins the Tampa Bay series with some brainless play. For his frustrating playoffs, Boychuk wasn't all bad, as a regular season Corsi of 7.39 can attest, although he benefited from frequent pairings with Chara. Apart from his slapper, Boychuk has some real offensive skill, and is at least adequate at moving the puck. And his physical play is rivaled only by McQuaid and surpassed only by Chara on the Bruin blue line. Unfortunately, he's often the case of a million dollar body with a ten-cent head. At 27, it's questionable whether he'll cut down on those lapses.
Andrew Ference - After a positively dreadful 2009-10 campaign that culminated in a contract extension so inexplicable that it had to be a product of the dark arts, Ference redeemed himself as much as any Bruin last year. Ference became one of the team's most respected leaders in the locker room and on the ice and provided quality second and third pair play en route to an impressive +22 rating. Alas, though beloved by teammates, Ference is a very limited hockey player. His 70 games played last year were the highest in 5 years, and at 32, he's hardly likely to become less brittle. He's not a gifted offensive player and is very susceptible to the forecheck, and isn't good enough positionally to cover for a teammate's lapses, as last year's playoffs showed. Ference is an above-average third pair defenseman, but giving him top four minutes is likely to burn the Bruins.
Joe Corvo - Corvo came over to the Bruins in what amounted to a swap for Tomas Kaberle. So, we might be well served using the guy he was "traded" for as a measuring stick. Unlike the dearly departed Kaberle, Corvo has a big shot and isn't afraid to use it, and is a significantly better skater than the slow-footed Czech. Like Kaberle, he has excellent offensive instincts and is a welcome addition to a power play. Unfortunately, Corvo plays an extremely high risk game, and has subpar defensive instincts, neither of which are likely to change at the age of 34. As much as Kaberle was maligned in Boston, his positioning was quite sound, and that's a huge issue for Corvo. Neither one has been known to throw a check. Corvo was one of the better defensemen on a terrible Carolina unit last year, with a +0.7 relative Corsi, and was just behind Tim Gleason for the toughest quality of competition. Corvo is also extraordinarily streaky, and Bruin fans need to be prepared for anything from him, from night to night.
Steven Kampfer - Kampfer looked to have the inside track on the 7th defenseman job, but has a sprained MCL in his left knee and will be out 2-4 weeks. Kampfer is a plus puck mover with a decent shot. He's on the smallish side, and not terribly physical, and is, of course, prone to the mistakes of youth, being just 23. If Corvo's defensive lapses/indifference cause Claude Julien to tear out whatever remaining hairs he has left, Kampfer could find himself as the quarterback on the second power play unit, and with a regular shift.
Matt Bartkowski - With Kampfer's injury, Bartkowski figures to have the 7th defenseman job for the time being. Bigger and more physical than Kampfer, Bartkowski lacks Kampfer's plus offensive instincts, but is an adequate skater, and with some experience, could be an above-average 3rd pair defenseman.
Colby Cohen - Cohen was one of the better defensive prospects in a strong Colorado system last year. It's possible that he could see some action if there's some injuries, but he appears to be well behind Kampfer and Bartkowski in the race for playing time.
David Warsofky - A little guy with a mammoth shot, he'll play in Providence this year, without much chance of seeing the big club.
Dougie Hamilton - The future franchise blue liner will be spending the 2011-12 campaign back in the juniors. They're in no hurry to rush him, nor should they be.
One hopes the Bruins will stick with the Chara/Seidenberg pairing that was so effective in last year's playoffs, and that the days of asking Seidenberg to carry his own pair are over. But if the Bruins get hung up on pairing right and left shots (and they shouldn't), then Boychuk would be the likely choice for the top pair, and Seidenberg and McQuaid could be on the second pair. In any case, it would make sense to pair Ference and Corvo, since Ference's responsible defensive positioning would cover for at least some of Corvo's bad gambles, while Corvo's mobility would keep opposing forecheckers at bay.
The Bruin defense has talent; they're above average pretty much everywhere, and for all the teeth-gnashing about the lack of a puck moving defenseman over the years, the Bruins are quite mobile at the blue line, with only Ference below average in that area. Everyone but Corvo and Kampfer plays a physical brand of hockey, and defensive positioning is pretty good for most of these guys. So what gives? Why did Boston give up 32.7 shots per night last year?
Let's work backward a few years. In 2009-10, the Bruins gave up a much more respectable 29.8 shots per game, which was 14th best in the NHL. However, in 2008-9 and 2007-8, the Bruins were back in the bottom 10 in shots allowed. For all the talk about Julien's defense-first system, there seems to be evidence that the Bruins are much more of a fire-wagon hockey team than they want to let on. Boston's 32.9 shots per game were the 3rd most in the NHL, after all. The philosophy on defense has been to try and shift everything to the outside, and force low quality shots, which the Bruins seem willing to live with. Shot quality metrics are questionable at best, so this is more of an observation than statistical analysis. But it does explain some of the disconnect between the ability of Boston's defense, and the high shot totals they surrender.
In any case, since Tim Thomas isn't stopping 93.8% of the shots he sees again, the group must cut down the shots allowed, one way or another. Some improvement from McQuaid and, to a lesser extent, Seidenberg should be forthcoming, and there's not a good candidate for decline, though Corvo is a real wild card.
Offensively, the Bruins are in good shape. Chara, Corvo and Seidenberg will all contribute and put up points. Puck movement is not an issue, and they should be able to get the puck to a very deep group of forwards. As for the man advantage, talent on the back end is not Boston's problem on the power play; the lack of a #1 power play center is, but that's another article. This unit should at least hold its own on the power play and the attack. A speedy return to health by Kampfer would help mightily here, especially if Corvo doesn't pan out.
Ultimately, though, Boston's defensemen will be measured by that shot total, and it should improve this year. Maybe not dramatically, but enough to take some heat off the goaltending.