Ference/By S. Bradley

Two things had to fall into place for the Bruins’ re-signing of Andrew Ference last March to a three-year contract extension to make any sense.

First, the veteran defenseman had to maintain some semblance of solid health. And then Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli had to assemble a defense corps deep enough that Ference would be a slightly overpaid third-pair defenseman instead of a vastly under-compensated top-four blueliner.

For the most part during Ference’s first year under that extension, both parts have come to fruition for the Bruins.

The timing of the signing will always be baffling. The Bruins last spring were facing the imminent free agency of Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk, not to mention the need to re-sign Zdeno Chara before the start of the last year of his deal. Ference, then 31, was enduring a below-average season production-wise while playing through a groin injury that he knew was going to require a second surgery in as many years (he’d been operated on on the other side in the summer of ’09). Prioritizing Ference, and locking him up for three years, was a matter of odd timing at the time — and it still is.

Nonetheless, sometimes moves like the Ference signing don’t look as ludicrous in retrospect. Ference has made it through 65 games this season, his most appearances since 80 in 2006-07. If he plays in the Bruins’ final five games he’ll reach 70 games played for the first time since that same season.

His only lengthy injury absence this season cannot be blamed on any fragility of body on his part. Anyone hit the way Ference was nailed by Victor Oreskovich in Vancouver would’ve suffered the same knee injury and required the same amount of time to return to the lineup.

After a goal-less 51 games last season, Ference has picked up his production this year with three goals and 11 assists. After scoring his third goal of the season Thursday night against Toronto, Ference noted that scoring doesn’t matter to him and any goals on his ledger are just an added bonus. That attitude might suit him, but the Bruins need offense from anywhere they can get it. More importantly, Ference has compiled a plus-24 rating on the year – both on Boston’s third pair with Adam McQuaid and while filling in for an injured Boychuk on the top pair earlier this season.

The Bruins are a non-descript 5-3-3 when Ference is absent from their lineup. But you can see in their style of play how much he means to their ability to manage and move the puck, especially in their own end. Most of the time the Bruins can rely on Ference to take care of the puck and keep things simple during his 17:57 of average ice time every night.

And then there are the intangibles that don’t show up on any stats sheet, like Ference’s utter disregard for his own safety when he sees a teammate – be it Milan Lucic, Mark Recchi or Tuukka Rask – get a cheap shot from an opponent. If he’s in the area, Ference never hesitates to get his gloves off and stick his nose into someone else’s business.

When you also take into account that any locker-room dissension Ference allegedly caused because of his role in the ouster of Paul Kelly as NHLPA head or with his comments about Daniel Paille’s headshot was obviously overrated, you can understand why the Bruins wanted to retain his services.

To determine whether the Bruins overpaid, there are only a couple comparables skating on other top-10 NHL teams. As far as bottom-pair defensemen on those clubs (based on average ice time), you can look at Philadelphia and see that the Flyers are paying 39-year-old Sean O’Donnell $1.3 million. Tampa Bay anted up $1.5 million for 34-year-old Brett Clark. Both players are older than Ference, and O’Donnell isn’t as productive as the Bruins blueliner.

In Washington, Jeff Schultz averages 19:40 of ice time and makes $2.75 million. He’s 25 but has scored just one goal this season. San Jose is paying 36-year-old Niclas Wallis $2.65 million this year to average just 15:45 of ice time and provide just seven points.

So for a bottom-six defenseman on a top-10 team, Ference is competitively compensated. Bear in mind, signing Ference didn’t preclude the Bruins from getting deals done with Boychuk, Seidenberg and Chara, or prevent them from chasing down Tomas Kaberle before this season’s trade deadline. Going forward, it’s unlikely that Ference’s $2.25 million is going to be the difference between Boston adding to its team or standing pat. Since Ference is one of the few players to not get a no-trade or no-movement clause from Chiarelli, if Ference’s deal ever gets in the way the Bruins wouldn’t have much difficulty doing the necessary maneuvering to clear him off the cap.

You don’t endure injury-plagued seasons like Ference faced the three years before this and shake off that “injury-prone” tag overnight. Should Ference break down and put the Bruins in an uncomfortable financial situation between now and the end of the deal, opinion on last spring’s extension will obviously sour.

As April 1, 2011, however, the deal with Ference has turned out to be a just reward for a valuable complementary player.