PROVIDENCE – If you were to gauge the progress of first-year professional defensemen Steve Kampfer and Matt Bartkowski just on points, you’d be forced to say that Kampfer is the winner so far in the race to be the Boston Bruins’ next defenseman with an offensive flair.
However, there’s not much room in today’s NHL for one-dimensional “offense-men” so there are other factors to consider when assessing the two Providence Bruins blueliners now that they have two full months of AHL hockey under their belts.
Kampfer, who also skated in six games for the P-Bruins last spring, now has 3-13-16 totals with a plus-10 rating in 20 games after he notched an assist in Sunday’s win over Manchester at Dunkin Donuts Center. Bartkowski also notched an assist in the game, which helped him salvage a nearly lost weekend during which he was minus-5 in three games. For the season, he now has eight points (two goals) in 21 contests.
“Bart had a tough weekend. I think he was minus-5 on the weekend, but it’s not necessarily indicative of how he played. He’s playing well,” said Providence head coach Rob Murray, whose team now stands at 10-10-2-1. “When he first got here, he was run and gun almost every shift. He was going to go with it; he was getting up the ice. Which we encourage, but within reason. And he was kind of out of control a bit. And he’s really calmed his game down. I think it’s serving him well.”
In a game that often showed the effects of both the P-Bruins and Monarchs playing their third game in three days, Bartkowski showed a few much-needed bursts of energy with the puck on his stick. He might still require some experience in harnessing his jets, but one can definitely see the wheels Boston is dreaming he’ll provide down the road. And Bartkowski, who was Boston’s last cut in the fall and even made the season-opening road trip to Belfast and Prague, knows the steps he has to take in order to find a level of consistency he has failed to reach much of this season.
“When I play my best, my feet are moving and I’m up on my gaps and I’m keeping the puck in the zone and getting shots on net,” said the rookie out of Ohio State. “That’s the main thing. Just playing simple and not trying to do too much. The main thing is just when I’m moving my feet, that’s when I’m at my best.”
Kampfer is less dazzling, but according to Murray skates almost as well as Bartkowski. If his current level of simplicity is what’s going to make Kampfer an NHL performer, then he should stick with it. A combination of extra work with Murray and assistant coach Bruce Cassidy, as well as time in the gym, is helping Kampfer to be the type of defenseman that can be reliable in the defensive zone and then add some points after.
“I’m just trying to play my game. I was always taught good defense leads to good offense,” said Kampfer, who returned from a brief injury absence last Sunday. “That’s what I’m trying to do; I’m trying to take care of my defensive zone first. And any offense will take care of itself. Right now, I’m kind of getting lucky with some bounces here and I just have to keep working for opportunities.”
Murray saw signs of improvement from Kampfer in the victory over the Monarchs.
“I don’t know that he’s going to be a guy that zips it through the seam, a no-look pass that catches everybody off guard. But I think his offensive part of the game, and one of the things that he’s getting better at more and more, is getting a shot through on the power play,” said the coach.
The deal that sent Matt Hunwick to Colorado without an NHL-ready replacement coming back had everyone, including Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, talking about how to replace the veteran defenseman’s speed and puck-carrying skills. Bartkowski and Kampfer were two names that often camp up in conversation.
It would seem that like most young defensemen, they’re learning on the job and experiencing as many ups as downs along the way. Those are the types of growing pains you expect and can live with in the AHL. At the NHL level, with a team that’s trying to not just make the playoffs but make a lengthy playoff run, you try to avoid becoming a work-study program.
Judging by this weekend’s play, and the comments you hear from and about Kampfer and Bartkowski, the Bruins will probably be better off allowing both players to continue to grow in the AHL. If injuries arise with the parent club, Boston could look outside the organization for help or lean on a couple AHL veterans in Jeff Penner and Andrew Bodnarchuk – who both have had NHL cups of coffee — to fill in.
The race to the NHL between Kampfer and Bartkowski is on, but still very much in its early stages