Reconsidering NCAA defensemen making the NHL leap

Kampfer/By S. Bradley

Up until recently, I wasn’t sold on the idea of undersized rookie defensemen Steve Kampfer or Matt Bartkowski being legitimately in the Bruins’ mix for the opening day roster.

While I still think it’s a little longer shot than the Bruins’ brass is willing to admit at this point that either beats out one of the six blueliners on one-way contracts — and to stay in the NHL, Kampfer or Bartkowski would have to play every night — both general manager Peter Chiarelli and head coach Claude Julien continue to sing the praises of their two upstarts on the back end.

The trials and tribulations of Matt Gilroy last season, to me, present a cautionary tale of expecting too much from a defenseman straight out of college. Gilroy struggled as a New York Rangers rookie after four seasons at Boston University, and finished the year with just 15 points in 69 games. He averaged 16:19 of ice time, but also spent five games in the AHL after he had struggle for a stretch.

However, there have been a handful of defensemen in recent years — of comparable NCAA experience and physical size — that have not only played well as NHL rookies without AHL experience but carved out solid NHL careers after their initial seasons. That bodes well for the 5-foot-10, 188-pound Kampfer and 6-1, 196-pound Bartkowski.

Here’s a thumbnail look at three:

John-Michael Liles

After four years at Michigan State, Liles averaged 16:14 of ice time as an NHL rookie with Colorado in 2003-04 at 23 years old. He put up 34 points in 79 games. To be fair, he skated in five AHL games in 2002-03, I doubt that made a huge difference in his development. He has exceeded 30 points every season since.

Matt Carle

Although he has become a bit of a journeyman with two trades since his rookie year, Carle jumped into the NHL stretch run at 21 straight out of Denver (three years there). Those games, plus a handful of playoff contests, helped him build up to a 42-point rookie season the following winter in 2006-07. Sure he needed a three-game stint in the AHL, but Carle was a key component on a solid Sharks team. Since landing in Philadelphia, he has regained his form after a couple down years, and he put up 35 points last season.

Paul Martin

Three years with Minnesota obviously prepared Martin well enough to average 20:08 minutes per game as an NHL rookie without any AHL games played. Martin put up 24 points at the age of 22 in 70 games and was a mainstay for New Jersey before leaving for Pittsburgh this summer.

No doubt there are probably an equal amount, if not more, of defensemen that haven’t fared as well without minor-league seasoning. Nonetheless, the three players mentioned above, and others, prove it can be done without wrecking a career.

It would appear that Kampfer, based on his maturity after four years at Michigan and blazing speed, probably has the better chance to be on the flight to Belfast Wednesday night. That doesn’t mean Bartkowski, who spent two years at Ohio State, won’t grab the lead in one or both of Boston’s final North American preseason games. Both have been showcased in prominent roles next to veteran blueliners and on the power play in the exhibition season.

It’s still going to be difficult with the contract situation and waivers involved to clear playing time for either rookie. Should the Bruins manage to scratch a veteran or sneak someone like Matt Hunwick through waivers to Providence (AHL) in order to open up a legitimate role for Kampfer or Bartkowski, there is at least precedent for a team with lofty postseason expectations leaning a little on an NCAA-to-the-NHL blueliner without damaging the team or the player.

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