He's a defenseman, so there were responsibilities. McQuaid has never been great, but he became a better player than anticipated. He's still a bottom-pairing defenseman at best. It's difficult to see him ever being more than that. However, he isn't the liability in his own end he was when he first cracked the lineup.
Thursday night, McQuaid was in the press box. He wasn't injured. He wasn't sick. He was, more or less, benched in favor of Matt Bartkowski or Dougie Hamilton or Torey Krug, depending on how you look at it. The three young defensemen in uniform for the club in the win over the Panthers don't pack the physical punch McQuaid does. Each, however, is better suited to play major minutes at this level.
For the time being, this is a good problem to have. Even with McQuaid's greater experience, rotating different players in and out of the lineup in these roles will help the Bruins as the year progresses. Playing matchups when they're healthy or letting one rest when they need it makes the Bruins a better team. With Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuck and Dennis Seidenberg firmly entrenched in their roles, and Krug looking like he's in that group as well, Hamilton, McQuaid and Bartkowski are left to fight for minutes. The dimension Hamilton offers on the power play should lead to a similar slot for him.
In the end, it will come down to Bartkowski and McQuaid for the sixth spot each night. Again, for this season, finding time for these defensemen is a good problem to have. Neither is established or effective enough to warrant a certain spot on a nightly basis. Additionally, each is a strong option depending on competition.
Moving forward, McQuaid's status on the club is in question. Signed through the 2014-15 season with at a bit more than $1.5 million, McQuaid could be an attractive asset for teams in the market for a solid bottom-paring defenseman. His unfortunate concussion history poses a bit of an issue in terms of moving him, especially with his proclivity for being punched in the head.
Following this season, both Krug and Bartkowski are restricted free agents. Their futures are in Boston, and the club will likely try to sign them to deals for between two and three years. At that point, McQuaid becomes an awfully expensive seventh defensemen. Hamilton will be in a similar position soon, and it's important that the Bruins get an extension worked out next summer. Whether it's a team-friendly bridge deal or a lengthy raise remains will be determined at that point.
It's too soon to say with any certainty that Bartkowski is the best option for the Bruins in the long term. His improvement since the trade rumors from last March can't be ignored, though. McQuaid's done more than expected since he became a regular. But he's met his ceiling. McQuaid simply won't ever be much better than he is now, whereas Bartkowski's made considerable leaps in the last six months and looks increasingly comfortable in the NHL. Aside from a bad outing in Columbus last Saturday, Bartkowski played well in two of his last three games and when called upon in the playoffs last spring.
For the time being, Claude Julien is content to trust his veterans on the back end in the most important of situations. Additionally, at least one of them will be paired with one of the three young defensemen on the ice. Thursday night, Julien played Hamilton with Chara, Bartkowski with Seidenberg and Krug with Boychuk. The pairings have changed pretty frequently as they're wont to do in the season's earliest stages.
Eventually, some combination of the seven defensemen will become the norm for the Bruins. It's likely McQuaid or Bartkowski will find himself in the press box more often than not. There are opponents that make McQuaid's style a more fitting foil. But Bartkowski is a more valuable piece, doing more than just scaring the bejesus out of his opponents.
McQuaid's worked hard to find more regular playing time. He's even chipped in an important goal or two in his time. But that time is over.
Bartkowski, Hamilton and Krug make up a young crop of defensemen that complements the Bruins' established top three. They're mobile, aggressive young players quickly becoming the type of efficient defenders in their own zone that great teams have. McQuaid has never been that, and he probably won't be a Bruin past this season because of it.