There are eight defensemen left on the Bruins’ roster. And let’s face it, there are seven begging to be paired with Zdeno Chara.
However, only one will get to regularly skate next to the gigantic 2009 Norris Trophy winner.
While head coach Claude Julien has said that he might lean toward switching up his top pair depending on the offensive depth of the Bruins’ opponent, you’ll definitely have three set pairs to start the season and the coaching staff will work from there. I’d lean toward a more balanced set-up rather than putting Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, who’s essentially Boston’s No. 2 blueliner, together on a regular basis.
Here’s what my pairs would look like based on preseason performance and my personal individual projections for the players in question:
Zdeno Chara-Johnny Boychuk
This pair worked out great last year. If Boychuk continues to develop into a legit, top-four, two-way defenseman, it allows the Bruins to move Seidenberg to a second pair and gives Boston one of the best one-two slap-shot tandems on one pair in the league. Opposing would-be shot-blockers will be thinking twice before going for a slide across the ice. While he’s still not the most fleet-of-foot defenseman, Boychuk’s improved positioning and his ability to throw a timely momentum-turning hit make him a solid complement to Chara, who hasn’t shown any sign of slowing down as a shutdown defender despite his 33 years of age.
Andrew Ference-Dennis Seidenberg
This would be, by far, the Bruins’ best puck-moving pair. The team might swap a little shutdown ability for some offense, but that’s worth it for a team that might be hard-up for scoring again this year with a Savard-less, Sturm-less line-up. Those who are Ference detractors have to at least admit that when healthy, he has been one of the Bruins’ most reliable defensemen the last few years, and the team has missed him when he has been out. Seidenberg enjoyed a breakthrough season last year with the Bruins and Florida, and now it’s time to find out if he can earn that rich contract the Bruins gave him and carry a defense pair for an entire season. Should one of these guys not be able to handle a second-pair role, it could cause a terrible chain reaction through the Boston line-up.
Mark Stuart-Matt Hunwick
These two guys are both left shots who have struggled when asked to play the right side. Both get my nod to be in the opening-night lineup because they have the most upside at this point and time among the Bruins’ bottom four D on the depth chart. On paper, Stuart’s defense and physicality and Hunwick’s speed and offensive instincts should go together like peanut butter and jelly. Of course, it hasn’t always worked out that way. Hunwick has struggled to overcome his size disadvantage with strength and positioning, all while fellow youngsters like roster-dwellers Adam McQuaid and Matt Bartkowski has started to push him for his spot.
If Hunwick can find his form of ’08-09, he could make a move into the top four. Or if he continues to struggle, McQuaid could take his spot and give the Bruins a rugged third pair with Stuart. I would assume that once the Bruins return to North America, Bartkowski will join Providence — the trip to Europe a bit of a reward to the rookie for leaving Ohio State early and producing an excellent camp.
As the season unfolds, the Bruins have to hope one of two things happen:
1. Their projected depth up front allows them to move a forward for a top-four defenseman in a trade;
2. At least two of the bottom four emerge as a legit, two-way second pair. All four men in those roles have legitimate question marks surrounding their potential play and ability to do it.
Of course, I’m not even factoring the inevitable injuries that will hit one or two of these guys. But in my mind, even when 100 percent healthy, depth on defense is the Bruins’ biggest weakness heading into this season.