BOSTON – Life could be made so much easier for Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli if two defensemen that are already his property can develop into the type of two-way, puck-moving guys him and 29 other GMs are always shopping around for.
Mark Stuart and Matt Hunwick both emerged from the 2009-10 season after extremely different performances. If both can apply the lessons they learned this season in the near future, the Bruins could have two blueliners to build around for years to come.
Stuart, who is a restricted free agent the Bruins will make every effort to re-sign, missed 26 regular-season games due to injury, and then didn’t get into playoff action until Game 3 against Philadelphia. The injuries, which snapped his 214-game iron man streak in December, kept him from matching or surpassing his offensive totals from his breakout 2008-09 campaign, and from emerging as one of Boston’s major leaders.
“I think missing a lot of games didn’t help my cause,” said Stuart when asked to assess his season on the team’s breakup day at TD Garden. “But I think when I went in there, I felt like I played well. That’s the worst part. I had some good stretches and then something else would come along. And I felt like I was playing some of my best hockey right at those points.”
“I can take that and kind of run with it this summer, and know that I was playing some of my best hockey when I was in there.”
While he’ll never be a point machine, Stuart has shown a better ability to get the puck on net each season. And his defensive game just keeps getting better. One of Boston’s more feared hitters, he’s widely respected as a future captain because of his work ethic and dedication.
Assuming the Bruins can get him locked up with another multi-year deal, Stuart will turn the page on his first-ever injury-plagued season and try to get back on the track to top-four status he previously was traveling.
“I feel like I’m still progressing,” said the 26-year-old Stuart. “It’s weird to say. I’ve been here five years. But I think I’m still trying to get better every year, which is good. If I can keep doing that, it’ll be good. So we’ll see.”
Unlike Stuart, Hunwick was physically healthy all year. Mentally, however, he struggled as his production tailed off.
“There’s always times when you’re not playing, or you might be in the lineup but still not getting much ice time, and I think there’s rough patches,” he explained on breakup day. “I don’t think you ever fully give up on yourself, but there’s times when you feel more comfortable than others. Like everyone says, you just have to work through them.”
There were plenty of those rough patches for Hunwick, who was expected to be one of the keys to the Bruins’ more-active defense at the offensive end. Instead, in 76 games (23 more than the previous year) he produced just 14 points (13 fewer than ’08-09). Hunwick said one of the obstacles he had trouble overcoming this season was the Bruins’ injury problems up front, which reduced Boston from three offensive centers to two. Playing on the third pair most of the year, he often was on the ice with a less-offensive centerman.
Of course, when Hunwick got more minutes because of injuries on the back end, he didn’t take advantage until the playoffs (six assists in 13 games).
“I was playing with Dennis [Wideman] and we were getting a lot more ice time,” Hunwick said. “And I had an increased role with getting a little power-play time as well. So I felt very comfortable offensively. Hopefully I can continue that into next season – kind of assume a similar role, where I’m playing special teams. I feel like I play my best when I’m out there more.”
It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario with Hunwick. He plays better when he plays more, but struggles to earn those minutes, including the special teams time. That’s something he’s going to have to outgrow. He’s signed for next season and should be back again to prove that he can crack a top four on an NHL roster on a consistent basis. As with Stuart, Hunwick is a quality person and future leader. Neither Stuart nor Hunwick was drafted by Chiarelli’s crew, but both exemplify the type of character the current regime has stressed with draftees and free agents.
Chiarelli might not be able to get Dennis Seidenberg or Johnny Boychuk to return as unrestricted free agents, and he might have problems importing sufficient replacements via trade or free agency because of the salary cap and other factors. Longer strides in their development by Stuart and Hunwick would protect the Bruins from being shorthanded on the back end due to personnel defections. Based on some glimpses they’ve provided the last couple seasons, the two 20-something D-men might be able hold down the fort.