The Boston Bruins have been boasting about their depth since Day One of their 2008 training camp.
And they’ve proven to have tons of talent at their disposal during their 19-5-4 start, as they’ve overcome lengthy injury absences by star winger Marco Sturm and defensemen Andrew Ference and Aaron Ward.
But not all the depth has had to make its way up I-95 from Providence of the AHL. No, some of it was already on the active roster awaiting an expanded role.
Among that group of players is Shane Hnidy, who for all intents and purposes started the season as the Bruins’ sixth or seventh defensemen. While he still spends the bulk of his ice time forming the Bruins’ third-pair with second-year backliner Mark Stuart, the 33-year-old Hnidy has had to do a little more (witness his 24:14 or ice time during Dennis Wideman’s absence at Tampa Bay) at times and he’s also made sure that head coach Claude Julien doesn’t have to fret when it comes time to spell his top four blueliners at pivotal points of games.
“It’s something I’ve dealt with over the years. My minutes can go anywhere from 10 to 20 – I’ve played in every slot from two to seven,” Hnidy recently told thebruinsblog.net. “I’ve been in this situation before. A couple years ago in Atlanta we lost a couple guys and I played (in the) top two for two months. It tends, whenever guys are in that situation, they get more minutes and you really want to take advantage of it. Sometimes it’s easier to play. You’re playing against tougher guys and you’ve got to be more aware but at the same time you know you’re into the game that much more.”
Hnidy scored his first goal of the season in a win over Florida last Saturday and he’s now compiled a plus-11 rating (his career high is plus-15) for the campaign through 24 games. His 1-4-5 totals in 14:51 of average ice time for the year is impressive for a guy who no matter how many minutes he gets will also be categorized more among the stoppers rather than the scorers.
“Shane’s strength is he knows his limitations and he just plays a simple game, but an effective game,” Julien said. “He’s got a really good shot. I keep saying I’d like to see him use it even more when he has the opportunity. … He keeps the play simple, he’s obviously a physical player. You saw him the other day (fighting) with (New York’s Tim) Jackman and holding his own. He’s pretty tough in that area as well. So he brings a little bit of everything.”
Hnidy’s produced a solid season thus far despite a slow start because of offseason surgery. Wear and tear in his knee finally got to bad to ignore. He was limited during training camp and only played in a couple preseason games. Once the regular season started, he didn’t exceed 15 minutes of ice time until the seventh contest.
Coming off the first serious injury of his NHL career, Hnidy admitted that he took a little bit to get comfortable and find some consistency. Now he’s playing at the level he wants.
“It was a long recovery. It’s just one of those things that keeps getting better and stronger as you keep working with it. So I’m feeling great here. When I’ve needed to rest it I’ve rested it. But for the most part it’s going along good,” he said.
Part of Hnidy’s ability to be one of the Bruins’ most sound defenders has been the comfort he’s been able to take from playing with the same partner almost since the first puck dropped. Stuart and Hnidy have been working together with near flawless synergy and making each other better.
“I think we get along well. We keep it simple, for sure, and take care of defense first,” said Stuart about the 6-foot-2, 204-pound Hnidy. “So I think we kind of complement each other well like that. And we communicate pretty well, I think. It’s nice to get comfortable with somebody and play with him.”
“He’s been around. I think the biggest thing he helps we out with is to not get too frustrated after a goal, a chance or maybe a bad game. He’d been there, he’s done that. He’s been around so he knows to just stay calm and keep things simple.”
That mentor role is another one Hnidy fits well. When he broke into the NHL with Ottawa earlier this decade, veteran Curtis Leschyshyn took then 25-year-old Hnidy under his wing. And so Hnidy tries to do that with Stuart, Matt Hunwick and the rest of his youthful teammates in Boston.
“I think when they come in, coming into that situation, especially when you aren’t getting minutes, you have to really focus one shift at a time and go out there and not overthink it, staying in the game and keeping it simple,” Hnidy said about his sage advice. “They all know how to play, they’ve all got the skill level and it’s been great.”
As the Bruins’ injured blueliners continue to heal, Julien will be faced with some tough line-up decisions. Hunwick’s play could force Hnidy to the sidelines. Hnidy knows there’s always someone coming for his job and he can only control his own play. Regardless, he’s looking forward to contributing to continued success in Boston and then keeping his career on the upswing for the foreseeable future.
“My strongest years have been these last three,” he said, “and I’ve still got a few more ahead.”