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With Boychuk gone, pressure is on B's defensive depth

October 5, 2014, 2:14 PM ET [18 Comments]
Ty Anderson
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It’s borderline impossible to keep a core together in a cap-world as tight as the one in the National Hockey League, and it seems that Peter Chiarelli and the Boston Bruins are learning that the hard way.

First came the summertime bonus-cushion crunch that left them with pennies to (unsuccessfully) re-sign Jarome Iginla. Now, with less than a week to go before the puck drops on the 2014-15 campaign, the Black and Gold have been forced to move on from a piece of their core and Bruin for the better part of the last five seasons in Johnny Boychuk, sending him to the New York Islanders for three draft choices.

“This is a tough trade. We all like Johnny. I spoke with him shortly after the trade was consummated,” Chiarelli said at a 4:30 p.m. press conference. “I told him ‘you know Johnny; we brought you here from Colorado. You did everything we told you to do. You got better as a player. You were patient. You got better. You’re a part of the fabric of the team and this was really hard to do but there’s an element of business to it, an element of hockey and we tried to get ahead of it a little bit.’ He was upset, I was upset, I’m still upset.”

Getting two second round picks (and a conditional third that comes to Boston if the Isles trade Boychuk to an Eastern Conference at any point throughout the rest of his current contract) isn’t the worst return for a player you were likely losing via free agency next summer, but it does take away a big weapon for the B’s.

A fixture on the B’s top-pairing alongside Zdeno Chara, and the club’s No. 3 defenseman behind Dennis Seidenberg, Boychuk was on the trade radar for many as he was on the hook for a $3.3 million cap-hit this year, and with the Bruins in need of some slight cap relief before putting Marc Savard on the long-term injured reserve. And though there were others that could’ve been moved, it was the current scope of today -- and with an eye for tomorrow -- that made No. 55 the odd man out.

“This deal was bordered around a couple things, one our cap situation, two trying to be proactive on team planning. I look at this a little bit globally like this may be one in a series of two or three steps throughout the course of the year,” Chiarelli noted. “I wish I could do everything at once. We were involved in some deals for players and as I said to you back in June or July, this is stuff that we have to peck away at. Unfortunately this is the type of stuff that comes first. I feel like we got very valuable return.

“Those are real viable picks that can be used to draft players or acquire players.”

With a few ‘paper transactions’ and maximizing Savard’s long-term injured reserve, the Bruins can begin the year with about $3.1 million in cap space (this per Capgeek), but replacing Boychuk’s presence on that top-four is certainly going to be a work in progress, though the Bruins feel their other d-men are ready.

“We have guys that are going to step up. They’re not the same player as Johnny,” admitted Chiarelli of a B’s defense still with seven skaters on their NHL roster, eight if you include David Warsofsky (if he clears waivers). “We’ve got players that are returning from injury in Adam McQuaid. We’ve got players that are coming into their own in Matt Bartkowski. We’ve got a player in Dougie Hamilton that’s really picking it up. We’ve got Seidenberg coming from injury, shaking the rust off.”

There’s risk in this potential reward for the Bruins. McQuaid, though he’s added some muscle this offseason and looks like the healthy, bruising McQuaid of old, has missed 91 games (including 19 playoff games) since the start of the 2011-12 season. And Bartkowski’s still just 84 games into his NHL career, and most would argue that his game needs some more fine-tuning before he’s ready for a full-time role on a top-four.

It’s going to take a group effort to ‘replace’ Boychuk, with McQuaid handling the bulk of the physical departures that come with Boychuk out of town, while you’ll need to see more of the steady, smooth-skating game that Bartkowski has shown hit-or-miss glimpses of throughout his Bruins career.

“If anything it’s a reality check. Anything can happen,” McQuaid said of the trade. “Just because that one move is made doesn’t mean that more moves can’t be made. You want to prove yourself every day and do what you can to be a part of this team.

“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet. I guess there was talk about one defenseman having to be moved and I think we all just kind of hoped that there was somehow that we could all stay a part of this group. I think it will take a little time to sink in,” McQuaid, a teammate of Boychuk’s for six of his seven seasons as a pro hockey player, admitted. “[Replacing Boychuk] will be a thing that we’ll have to do by committee. It will be probably everybody chipping in a little bit here and there to fill that void and guys will have to step up.”

No matter how it’s sliced, or even perceived by the players that ‘survived’ the cap crunch, though, this is going to be a tough loss for a Bruins squad that’s relied on the stability of their defense corps for years.

Boychuk, though unlikely to skate with the club beyond the 2014-15 season given the recent paydays for defensemen hitting the open market as unrestricted free agents, is coming off a career-high 23 points last year, and seemed like a lock to be with the club for one more run at Lord Stanley. And saying bye to a talent of that caliber for picks alone is a tough and quite bitter pill to swallow. But what could make it worse is the potential trickle-down effect in the event of another injury or failure to meet expectations set forth by B’s brain trust by the rest of the defense. You can’t help but ask yourself, “What happens if there’s an injury to the top-four like last season?” You’re likely in an even spot than you were then, and look at what that got you last time around (one Andrej Meszaros, a Corey Potter, and a second-round exit). This could also throw a wench in Boston’s plans to give Chara fewer ‘hard minutes’ during the regular season, even though the club is once again raving about the shape that their 37-year-old captain came to camp in.

The Bruins will need progression from everybody, and that’s no longer a secret.

“I think there’s no doubt that the experience those young guys got was valuable. But at the same time, we’ve got to remember that we’ve got [Dennis] Seidenberg, we’ve got [Adam] McQuaid back in our lineup, which is two more veterans,” head coach Claude Julien said. “That certainly helps that youth maybe not be so young. So those are things. But the guys that got that experience – you’re talking about [Matt] Bartkowski, talking about [Torey] Krug, you know Dougie Hamilton. I think those things will certainly pay off for us.”

Were the Bruins dealing from a position of strength? Of course not. Everybody and their mother knew that they had to cut salary somewhere, and their blue-line was the obvious choice. Again, however, moving a player as important as Boychuk isn’t going to come without second guesses from an anxious fanbase.

Chiarelli knows such is the case with this club, but isn’t it letting it affect his outlook on the year.

“I feel good about the team. I think there’s still areas where we can tweak, and that’s my job over the course of a shorter period of time – shorter meaning I’d like to see how these guys look in 10, 15, 20 games,” Chiarelli, now in his ninth year as the B’s general manager, said. “We’ve got some young players that are pushing, and we’ll see how that goes. So it’s easy to say, ‘Let’s keep the team together and it will subsequently be as we won four or five years ago it will be the same team and we’ll win.’ Now, it doesn’t happen that way. Dynamics change, people change, the way they approach things change. And I’m not trying to keep refreshing, it’s just that we want to get better and sometimes you can’t do it in one step.

“That’s how I see this.”

The Bruins will get their first look at Boychuk in a New York sweater on Thurs., Oct. 23 at the Garden.

Ty Anderson has been covering the Boston Bruins for HockeyBuzz.com since 2010, is a member of the Pro Hockey Writers Association's Boston Chapter, and can be contacted on Twitter, or emailed at Ty.AndersonHB[at]gmail.com
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