The Boston Bruins’ recent signing of free agent defenseman Derek Morris, on the heels of their trade of Aaron Ward to Carolina, leaves the club with an interesting mix of left- and right-handed shots on its back line.
Boston’s depth chart on D now includes four left and two right defensemen. Now, while most NHL defensemen give you the boilerplate “I can play on either side, whatever the coach wants” response when asked about playing on his stronger or weaker side, there’s no question that every player has a comfort level on a particular side. Plus it’s in a team’s interest to have the majority of its players making outlet passes on their forehand rather than their backhand.
So how should the Bruins align their defense this coming season? It’s never too early to plan, and first and foremost if I was coaching the Black and Gold would be to move Zdeno Chara to the right side.
Most observers have already penciled in Morris for the Bruins’ top pair to Chara’s right in Ward’s old spot. But to me that weakens the Bruins in a number of ways, starting with the fact that Andrew Ference, Mark Stuart or Matt Hunwick would have to be the one to change sides on a regular basis. While Ference has shown flashes of versatility in his time in the Hub, he’s definitely better suited for his strong side because he already has enough to overcome with his size disadvantage. Stuart and Hunwick could conceivably move, but both have settled in well as young up-and-comers, so it’s not worth tampering with their comfort while they’re still developing into prime-time players.
Now that brings me to Chara, who blossomed into the 2009 Norris Trophy winner while patrolling the left side almost exclusively during his first three seasons in Boston. But most of the last two years have featured Ward skating alongside the towering blueliner to throw his body at pucks and opposing skaters, stay responsible and throw the occasional shot on net from the point. General manager Peter Chiarelli is singing Morris’ praises as a puck-mover who can also bring that physical element. However, he’s no Ward, nor should the Bruins want him to be. His offensive dimension, along with his youth and mobility make the team better and that’s why the moves were made.
They’ll be an even better club if Morris and Chara aren’t paired. The captain needs a stay-at-home partner. Morris doesn’t help the Bruins if he’s not strutting his stuff. Dennis Wideman, Boston’s other right-hander, doesn’t fit the bill either. Thus, Chara moving to the right side makes the most sense. And I declare that the best sidekick for Chara, at least to start the season, should be Stuart. The 25-year-old embodies a lot of the same rugged qualities as Ward, but he’s much younger and sports He-Man-like strength. He’s always in great enough shape to log the minutes required of a Chara partner. And it’s about time, now that Stuart’s entering his third NHL season, that the Bruins find out if what they have is a minutes-eating top-four guy or a player destined to just be in the bottom four and hold his own. To me, Stuart is a top-four player.
Assuming Chara is open to the shift, probably the only ones that will be against it will be some of the top snipers in the Eastern Conference. Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Mike Cammalleri are among those that skate the left wing. Now not only will they have to deal with gargantuan blueliner every time they’re on the ice, but he’ll already be on their side of the ice when they cross the blue line.
Pairing off the other four defenseman is easy if you reside in one of two camps. If you want a balanced pair and an offensive pair, you go Ference-Morris and Hunwick-Wideman. Or you switch them to keep Hunwick and Wideman apart. Wideman and Ference have proven a cohesive duo in stretches the last couple seasons.
Once the Bruins’ top pair is settled and a perfect match for Chara is found, everything else should fall into place. Even if Morris is on a “third pair” (or pair 2A to be politically correct), he’ll make up the minutes on the Bruins’ top power-play unit (a discussion for another column).
There are still more than seven weeks remaining before training camp opens, and the Bruins’ defense corps could change in terms of personnel over that span. But if everyone stays put on the back end, than Chara moving to the right sounds right to me.