Jay McKee might interest the Bruins

Barring a trade to clear some salary cap space, the Bruins probably won’t be able to ante up for a top-four defenseman when the free agent market opens July 1.

That doesn’t mean they can’t go shopping for some veteran help on the back end.

General manager Peter Chiarelli and head coach Claude Julien always stress a need for competition for playing time, and both have found out just how damaging the inevitable injuries to a team’s blue-line corps can be over the course of a season.

So Boston has to protect itself against injury or the inevitable failure of at least one player not to meet production projections. There’s no telling if Johnny Boychuk, Mark Stuart or Matt Hunwick — young veterans all — will continue to progress or if they’ll plateau.

With the Bruins currently sporting seven established defensemen (assuming they re-sign Stuart) on their depth chart, it’s unlikely they’d be able to get a free agent younger than 30 to come to Boston. Playing time just wouldn’t be plentiful enough for a guy like former Boston University blueliner Freddy Meyer or Jordan Leopold. The Bruins probably have to look more toward players similar to fellow unrestricted free agents Nick Boynton (31), Aaron Ward (37) and Shane Hnidy (34) — former Bruins all. Chiarelli has shown less of an interest in reuniting with guys he has let go than maybe other GMs would, and there’s no telling what the Bruins’ opinion of Boyton is because he was moved out before Chiarelli was officially on the job.

Eliminating guys in their 20s and guys that have worn black and gold in the past, you’re probably looking at the likes of Jay McKee or Mark Eaton being in the mix. Both have shown the ability to perform even when not in the lineup every night. Both potential former Pittsburgh Penguins fit the Chiarelli/Julien mold of guys that can be leaders, set an example, block shots and keep things simple.

There’s always the chance a top-four blueliner or two falls through the cracks and can be had for a price more in line with what Boston could afford. That could make Andy Sutton, Mike Mottau or Kim Johnsson available on Chiarelli’s “secondary market.” But should the Bruins be only able to make a deal with a third-pair guy, the former Penguins might be their best bet.