I wasn’t exactly revealing state secrets this morning when I wrote that for the Bruins to have a chance against Atlanta tonight, they were going to have to figure out a way to slow down the unique defensive specimen that is Dustin Byfuglien.
Well, we know how that went.
Byfuglien posted a goal and three assists in the Thrashers’ 4-1 triumph over the Bruins, who have now lost four out of their last five games.
The Bruins didn’t do any of the things they talked about doing to contain Byfuglien. They wanted to make him play in the defensive zone, and instead were so weak on the puck on the attack and in the neutral zone, he hardly had to work in his own end. They talked about taking better angles and throwing the body at him, but instead watched him skate around them as though he was Haley’s Comet.
Or maybe the Bruins were just so amazed at the sight of a defenseman carrying the puck for more than just one stride, circling the other net instead of his own and firing a shot that actually lands on goal. After all, there are seven defensemen on the Bruins’ roster who aren’t capable of performing many of these maneuvers unless at least two opposing players fall down.
We knew entering this season, just like seasons past, that the Bruins’ biggest need was another puck-moving defenseman. They shored up the league’s worst offense, but in doing so dealt Dennis Wideman, who even at his worst in 2009-10 was still the closest Boston had to a blueliner that could consistently make plays out of his own end.
It was a bit ironic that in a recent NESN interview with Andy Brickley, general manager Peter Chiarelli revealed he thought the team has missed Wideman and his transition game this season. Well, gee, who’s the guy that traded Wideman but failed to replace him and is now so tight against the cap the options for adding a game-changer on the back end might be practically impossible without moving a major piece the club doesn’t want to part with?
Anyway, Zdeno Chara takes a lot of heat when the Bruins are faltering, but he has been all he’s cracked up to be this season. When it has been time to stifle a big-time opposing sniper or let rip with a slap shot from the point, Chara has been there. No one expects the 6-foot-9 giant to make Byfuglien-like rushes. Unfortunately, it’s become all too apparent that no one else in Boston’s defense core can even carry the puck across one blue line, let alone two.
Dennis Seidenberg does some strong things in front of his own net, but with the puck on his stick he looks like a Winnebago climbing a hill. Mark Stuart hasn’t made any strides in his first-pass game and Matt Hunwick – although obviously overflowing with courage because he decided to fight powerful Evander Kane – can’t seem to take that next step toward becoming at least a one-way threat. Hunwick’s supposed to be an offensive defenseman, but he now has as many fighting majors as goals this season.
In an ideal situation, Andrew Ference would be playing his sound, simple game on a third pair. And Johnny Boychuk might’ve finally found his stride tonight for the first time since coming back from injury, but his game is about big hits in the open and blasts from blue line.
When it comes to making a quick first pass, the Bruins’ defense corps has become allergic since the season’s first couple weeks – a time period that’s starting to look like a bit of a fluke. Boston’s breakouts have reverted to ’09-10 form, with giveaways along the side walls and so many passes back behind the Bruins net you forget which way Boston’s shooting.
A lot has started to be made about the coaching from Claude Julien and his staff. You can blame those guys for fact that the team obviously isn’t properly prepared on a nightly basis – the Bruins have been scored on first 14 times in 22 games – but unfortunately the coaches don’t put the roster together. We’ve seen glimpses of what the strategy is meant to be at times when Chara or Ference has joined the rush – sometimes to disappointing effect. But if the coach is given pack of mutts, all the tutelage in the world won’t turn them into show dogs.
The approaching return of Marc Savard, and the comeback of Marco Sturm to follow, was only supposed to present Chiarelli with difficult decisions to make to get under the cap. But right now there are plenty of candidates on defense and up front to be jettisoned for the returning stars. The tougher decision might be how to rectify the problems on the back end. First, the Bruins have to get healthy. Then Chiarelli might have to make a hard decision or two regarding players he probably hasn’t thought much about trading
The offensive pieces are seemingly in place, but the likes of Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic and even Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler, can’t do much when they can’t get the puck from their own blueliners. Barring an unforeseen drastic improvement by the current cast of defensemen, a change in personnel will be required to upgrade the transition game from coach to first class. However, finding a defenseman that can have that type of effect on a team, now or ever, is about as rare as a ride on a space shuttle.