If you don't know the majority of the Bruins blueline corps already, then we should either welcome you as a new fan or urge you to seek medical attention for your lockout-induced amnesia. With Joe Corvo the only regular player turnover from last season (heh, see what I did there), we're looking at much the same group from way back in the cup-winning campaign. Only the identiy of this year's mystery guest star in the role of “puck moving defenseman” offers any intrigue.
For a refresher course:
Zdeno Chara -
Perennial Norris candidate, fitness freak and horrifying were-rabbit, Chara is the lynchpin of the Bruins D. In all situations and in the toughest deployments, Chara excells, shutting down the world's top offensive forces on a routine basis. He eats minutes like Lucic at a buffet. On the powerplay, his hardest-in-the-world shot is a weapon so dangerous, our assistant coaches fear to employ anything else. At 35 years old, when most players are beginning the downward slope of their careers Chara hit a new career high, squeaking past his '09 Norris-winning tally with 52 points and absolutely blowing away that year's possession numbers with a Corsi On of 17.52. But all things considered, when you want the best defenseman in the league you'd all rather have Erik Karlsson, right?
Johnny Boychuk -
One should take all statistical measurement with a grain of salt where it concerns Johnny Boychuk. A beneficiary of the "Redden Effect," Boychuk receives the Chara bump across all metrics, spending the lion's share of his ice time with the Captain. Yet even with one of if not the best partner in the league, an increase in TOI, and an almost completely healthy season, Boychuk's offensive production plateaued. That Johnny Rocket's not getting any more accurate and Z's handling the bulk of the puck distribution. However, Boychuk's defensive positioning and decision making have improved markedly, with far fewer misadventures resulting in adverse breakaways. His devastating hits still put him out of the play on occasion, but thorough boneheadedness seems to be working its way out of his game. He's not top pair material on any team lacking an all-world partner to pair him with, but he's capably munching minutes for a relatively reasonable fee. Why he deserves an NTC I'll never know, but that's a story for another day.
Dennis Seidenberg -
Coming off a stellar performance in the 2011 playoffs, forming a formidable shut-down pair with Chara, Der Hammer spent most of the 2011-12 season
saddled with paired with the year's Dennis Wideman stand-in, Joe Corvo. While not an out-and-out failed experiment, as they did largely succeceed in keeping play going the right direction, both players experienced dips in their offensive output. Covering your partner's gaffs tends to do that, I suppose. Even so, Seidenberg remains a rugged all-around defensive presence with top-notch own-zone instincts and a tendency to become a shot-blocking and rebound-clearing machine when the going gets tough. His contract has become a veritable steal given comparables around the league, though we'll selectively ignore the fact he could have been had for cheaper instead of Derrick Morris in the first place.
Adam McQuaid -
Darth Quaider. Lone Wolf McQuaid. The Mullet. Quickly erasing the memory of Mark Stuart with each earth-shattering hit and maniacal mid-fight grin, McQuaid has contributed solid stay-at-home D and pest deterrent to the third pair for the past few years. He and his frequent partner Ference boast the best on-ice team save percentage on the roster – admittedly owing in part to quality goaltending and lesser ice time, but commendable nonetheless. He's incrementally gaining Julien's trust and has seen his icetime creep up as his Corsi modestly improved. Unfortunately, recovery from surgery to remove a blood clot will delay McQuaid's return to the lineup, opening up a temporary vacancy.
Andrew Ference -
"Friend of the blog” and to trees everywhere, Alt-Captain Planet has established himself as a leader on the team with some memorable playoff heroics and wardrobe malfunctions. However, while he may have captured the hearts and minds of some of the crunchier among you, he ranks at the bottom of the team's depth chart. He's the worst possession defenseman on the team, getting trapped in his own end and permitting the most shots of any regular. His slight uptick in production last year is owed almost entirely to defense-wide highs in shooting percentage and PDO. I'm among the biggest Ference-boosters out there due to the content of his character (and because I'm a damn hipster), but I think we're about to see his swan song in the Black and Gold, with a few youngsters in his mold developing down I-95. And unless he's had his skeleton replaced with adamantium in the offseason, he's long overdue for some LTIR time. The past two years of 70+ games are anomalous for Ference's career.
Dougie Hamilton -
Ok, we're all psyched that we took Toronto's lunch money again and boy are we ever going to miss Brian Burke, but just because we finally have a blue chip blueline prospect, don't expect him to be the second coming of #4. He's a kid - a kid with some stellar offensive instincts and some questionable defensive ones. He's a joy to watch on the powerplay, possessing a sixth sense for open seams and an uncanny ability to sneak into vulnerabilities in PK formations, but he's developed some risky habits that veteran NHLers will feast on. Plus Geoff Ward's going to beat any creativity out of him in camp and Claude's going to limit his minutes. His puck moving game looked pretty sound in the World Juniors, but you'll spot him front and center on the highlight reel of Semi-Final mistakes against the USA, losing his man and screening fellow B's prospect Malcolm Subban for the opening goal. In short, manage your expectations. If he's taking a regular shift, gets some 2nd unit PP time and isn't committing too many unforced errors, then consider the season a success.
Aaron Johnson -
Acquired in the offseason after a 56 game stint playing out of his depth on a woeful Columbus squad, Johnson will be returning to his rightful place as a spare part in Boston. Playing the role of 7th Defenseman, Johnson is just here to buy prospects further development time. Better a journeyman languish on the 9th floor than a prospect. That said, with McQuaid out, expect Johnson to duke it out with Torey Krug and a couple other P-B's for bottom pair duties to start the season.
I can't speak directly to the game of a guy I hardly witnessed play, because who wants to watch the Blue Jackets, but according to The Columbus Dispatch's Aaron Portzline “Johnson has pretty good offensive instincts with the puck, but he’s always struggled in his own zone. He used to be a swift skater. Not so much anymore.” So he's more or less Mike Mottau. As indicated by his stats though, we may want to brace ourselves... In all Corsi measurements, teammate and noted disaster Brett Lebda outperformed him, with Johnson getting smoked in Relative Corsi, 6.9 to -1.7. Barring an outbreak of boneitis among the roster, we should be seeing Johnson about as much as Shane Hnidy on his second tour of duty. Basically, don't run out and buy his jersey, this is a one-and-done contract.
Prospect Quick Hits:
Matt Bartkowski – A mid-sized two-way player, Bartkowski's had a couple cracks at the NHL due to injuries and has thus far failed to acquit himself in limited minutes. NBC informs that he's from Pittsburgh. Incessantly.
Colby Cohen – Elder skatesman of the AHL D-men (Exelby doesn't count), Cohen's time as an NHL cusp-er is running out as other prospects on this list leapfrog him. A call-up means someone probably died.
Torey Krug – A small package with good passing, skating and vision, Krug got a short big league audition last year and didn't look out of place, notching one assist in his scant two games. Expect him to get a year of AHL seasoning, though injuries might give him a chance to seize a spot on the roster ahead of schedule.
Zach Trotman – Leading all defensemen in scoring in his first full year in Providence, the AHL squad's largest defeseman could be a surprise call-up ahead of older prospects.
David Warsofsky – More offense-first than most of the others on this list, his defensive game will probably keep him out of Claude's favor. Size is a knock against him as well.
With very little movement in personnel there will be minimal juggling of last year's pairings. Once again, anticipate Left and Right shooting pairs, with Chara and Boychuk reprising their top-line tandem. Julien has made clear that Chara/Seidenberg is solely a “break in case of playoffs” duo.
When it comes to the second pair, Claude's hand may be forced into a choice he doesn't want to make. One need only point to Tyler Seguin to see how the coach prefers to handle a highly touted rookie, but with Adam McQuaid still sidelined, Hamilton will likely audition with Seidenberg. Rather than premiering with the team's worst-performing D-man in Ference or a question-mark-at-best in Johnson, a defensive stalwart may be the best option for a first NHL partner. And Claude would sooner reveal to reporters his starting goalie than hand Hamilton the keys to first pair minutes straight out of the gate.
The bottom pair... whelp, prepare for high adventure to start the season with Ference and Johnson getting few and sheltered minutes. Upon McQuaid's return, he'll be eased into the bottom pair and reunited with Ference, but Hamilton's first misstep will be McQuaid's promotion.
Krug's absence from the camp invite list indicates he'll stay in the A until further notice and will be second or third in line for a crack. In his place, the Polish law office of Bartkowski and Warsofsky will get a peek, but they've only an outside shot of keeping Johnson off the ice.
What's old is new again. Returning is a stingy veteran squad, anchored by one of the era's best, well versed in keeping shot quality down and play to the outside of the house. Boston's deadly transition game took a lot of heat off last year's D as well, keeping the puck on the other end of the ice and reducing the year-over-year number of shots faced by Tuukka and that other guy... what was his name... Turco, was it?
Under Claude Julien, defense is very much a team effort, so one can't attribute the improvement in 2011-12 solely to the blueliners - and it definitely wasn't the addition of Joe Corvo. Count on the forwards, lead by Mr. Selke, Patrice Bergeron, to help lighten the defensive load. Essentially, we've got the same team at D and forward that came in third in the league in goals for/against ratio, so we should be in pretty good shape. So keep your Hamilton expectations in check, and lets enjoy the ride.